Antarctica was host to the explorers of the ‘Heroic Age’that began in 1897 and ended in 1922. Men like Scott, Shackelton, Amundsen and Australia’s own Douglas Mawson were keen to discover the secrets of the frozen continent. No person stood at the South Pole until 1911.
Antarctica is home to a rich and diverse collection of whales, seals, penguins, albatross, fish and krill – a small prawn-like creature that is the basis of the food chain.
The landmass of Antarctica holds 70% of Earth’s fresh water, frozen as ice. Unlike the Arctic, where melting ice will not affect sea levels (much like ice cubes floating in a drink), melting ice in Antarctica has a direct impact on sea levels. It causes them to rise because the ice is on the land. If all the ice sitting on Antarctica were to somehow melt (this would take millions of years) sea levels would rise between 50 – 70 metres.
In 2002 on the Antarctic Peninsula a slab of ice known as Larsen B broke up in the space of five days and fell into the Weddell Sea.
This was not a regular block of ice – it was 200 metres high, 50 kilometres long and contained enough ice to fill an Olympic Stadium 3,500 times over (or Keith Richards’ scotch glass for a week). The scientists who study these things had forecast that Larsen B would be stable until 2100 – Ooops!
Ten ice sheets on the Antarctic Peninsula have receded or collapsed since the 1990s. A part of the Wilkins Ice Sheet is broke off in 2009. It held on for several months with a strip of ice 500 meters wide compared to a 100 kms strip in the 1950s.
More and more ice has fallen into the sea and melted in Western Antarctica and on the Antarctic Peninsula since 1997. Meanwhile, the Eastern Antarctic is stable, with no loss and increase in the same period. Satellite images show a loss of 132 billion tons of ice in Western Antarctica – up from 83 billion tons in 1996 – and a loss of 60 billion tons on the Antarctic Peninsula. (One billion tons of ice is enough to supply Australia with drinking water for a year.)
Ten ice sheets on the Antarctic Peninsula have receded or collapsed since the 1990s. The Wilkins sheet is poised to break up, held in place by a sliver of ice 500 meters wide compared to 100 kms in the 1950s.
Antarctica holds the key to our climatic history deep within its ice. The continent is covered (on average) by three kilometres of ice.
Scientists have drilled into this ice core to reveal tiny bubbles of air trapped in the ice up to 800,000 years ago. The ice cores show that over this period of time carbon dioxide levels have remained between 180 and 280 part per million (ppm). Today they are almost 400ppm and increasing at the rate of 2ppm every year.
In the past, it took 1000 years for carbon dioxide levels to rise by 30ppm during periods of natural warming. It has risen by that much in the past 17 years! What would the advice be from your doctor if your blood pressure made the same rapid leap? It’s this rapid and unprecedented rate of increase that is our greatest challenge.
Edwin Mickelburgh, who first visited Antarctica with the British Antarctic Survey in 1968, wrote in his 1987 book, Beyond the Frozen Sea: Visions of Antarctica: ‘The continent has become a symbol of our time. The test of man’s willingness to pull back from the destruction of the Antarctic wilderness is the test also of our willingness to avert destruction globally. If we cannot succeed in Antarctica we have little chance of success elsewhere.’