Bremerhaven, August 6, 2014. Appearing online today in the scientific journal Nature is a forward-looking article by 75 leading Antarctic researchers and science managers from 22 countries. The so-called “SCAR Horizon Scan” catalogues the 80 most pressing questions to be pursued during the next 20 years of research in the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean. In this interdisciplinary exchange of ideas, three scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research contributed to working out the topics that now establish the thrust of Antarctic research.
How does the surface of the Earth look below the Antarctic ice, which itself is several kilometres thick? Which structures provide the ice sheet with a foothold and how far could the grounding lines for glaciers retreat, causing an increase in the number of icebergs calved? The formation of deep water in the Southern Ocean is of global significance; how might this change if, through such processes, increased fresh water is released into the deep sea? How far to the north will hydrodynamics change in the area that drives the currents in the world’s oceans? How quickly will the change in the Antarctic take place and do we know of comparable developments in past eras?
These questions are the ones which biologists ask of geoscientists and oceanographers, for example, enabling them to estimate how not just individual species but also entire populations of flora and fauna would react. In future, concentration is to be focused on the effects of frequently observed combinations of multiple environmental factors as they change, instead of just individual factors. Whether organisms adapt, migrate or die off will, in part, depend upon the tempo of the changes. The survival of the community of living beings and its adaptability are essential to ecosystem outputs. The smallest of algae in the Southern Ocean, for instance, produce oxygen and extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. If there is a change in their rate of photosynthesis, then this influences the concentration of the gases in water and, via the exchange of gases, has an effect on the atmosphere. Climatologists then use the results of detailed studies of these processes, ultimately incorporating them into climate models. Thus the interactions between the atmosphere, land, water, ice and living beings – as well as potential changes in ecosystem outputs in response to changed environmental conditions – can be depicted in a way that is closer to reality.
Large areas of the Antarctic present major technical and logistics problems to science if scientific endeavour is to achieve the research targets that have been set. Storms and ice floes make it necessary to use icebreakers as research ships when exploring the Southern Ocean. Antarctica is the coldest and stormiest continent on our planet. Individuals have to expend great effort to conduct field work beyond the 64 research stations. The operation and supply of the stations themselves require extensive polar logistics. That alone is reason enough for the international community of Antarctic researchers to be excellently networked. One example is the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Science (SCAR), which initiated the horizon scan now being published.
“Bundling the future-oriented questions presented by the wide variety of disciplines involved in Antarctic research was itself an exciting process,” reports Prof. Heinrich Miller, geophysicist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). Together with AWI director and SCAR vice president Prof. Karin Lochte and AWI biologist Prof. Julian Gutt, Miller consolidated in a SCAR horizon workshop and three discussion sessions the suggestions presented by the scientific community, thus forming six priorities for Antarctic science. “We have been successful in formulating 80 questions of concern to Antarctic researchers. In ten or twenty years we can determine how far we have come and whether relevance has shifted,” Miller continues.
In the Nature study, the 75 authors formulated the basic prerequisites needed so that international commitment in the Antarctic will continue to correspond to the continent’s significance to the planet as a whole. The core demands here are for sustained and stable funding, access to all of Antarctica throughout the year, application of newly developed technologies, strengthened environmental protection, growth in international cooperation, and improved communication among scientists, logistics experts, those funding research, political decision-makers and the public.
In addition to the questions in the fields of climate science, geology and biology, the authors consider political factors, including the leading role of the Antarctic Treaty. Among other aspects, the Treaty regulates the peaceful use of the area beyond the 60th parallel south and governs free international collaboration in research. The authors view the prerequisites for protected marine areas; they also observe socioeconomic aspects, genetic resources, and potential future developments in tourism and fishery in the Antarctic. Nor is space research neglected. The clean air over the Antarctic permits an especially clear view of space. Thus the authors point out how the great potentials of Antarctic research can be used in many fields relevant to society.
Original study: Mahlon C. Kennicutt II, Steven L. Chown et al.: “Six Priorities for Antarctic Research“, Comment in Nature 512, 23–25; 7 August 2014 (doi:10.1038/512023a). The catalogue of 80 questions is available there as supplementary material.
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The Alfred Wegener Institute conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and oceans of the high and mid-latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides major infrastructure to the international scientific community, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctica. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the 18 research centres of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany.