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Antarctica: testing ground for climate change

Published time: May 28, 2011 05:36
Edited time: May 28, 2011 11:00

To get a proper grip on global warming, you’ll have to spend some time in the planet's coldest climates. In Antarctica, scientists are observing glaciers to give us clues as to which way our world is heading.

Each week, Bulat Movlyudov hikes out to the Bellingshausen Dome glacier on King George Island to measure 29 different markers. By doing so, he can record exactly how the glacier changes each year, and it seems that the glaciers in Antarctica are getting smaller.

“The fact that our glaciers are changing in size points to a change in climate,” he told RT. “Right now, we know that since the middle or the end of the 19th century, the majority of glaciers are receding. It means there is a general warming of our climate.”

Antarctica provides a unique opportunity where scientists can get a firsthand look at how this warming trend affects the local ecosystem.

“A greater amount of fresh water is coming from the land to the sea, forming a fresh water layer on the surface of the sea water,” said hydrobiologist Vasily Pavarzhny. “Fresh water is lighter, so there are some problems with mixing of the water column which could possibly influence the structure of zooplankton.”

Zooplankton and krill are the main sources of food for the majority of life in Antarctica. According to research fishery biologist Christian Reiss, over the last 30 years in this region, the amount of ice, which is critical for krill survival in the wintertime, has declined.

“That means that the area may not support the amount of krill in the future that is has supported in the past,” he said. “Penguin species – Adelie penguins and Chinstrap penguins – are declining in this region, principally due to the decline in krill.”

However, even though the overall trend has pointed to what is in essence global warming, some scientists say that we are in fact living between ice ages, and this is all a part of a natural cycle. There are even claims that we may be at the beginning of the next cooling trend.

“The main indicator on the glacier is the equilibrium line altitude. It is the altitude where the accumulated amount of snow equals the amount which has melted,” said Bulat Movlyudov. “If this altitude gets higher, it means that the climate is getting warmer and if the altitude gets lower it means that climate is getting colder. Since 2006 this altitude keeps getting lower.”

While scientists have been keeping track of how the glaciers have been reacting to changes in the environment, they say it is just one part of a much larger system

“We have to keep in mind we do not have a situation where climate changes in the same way all over the planet,” Movlyudov said.

“Somewhere it is getting warmer, somewhere it is getting colder and somewhere there are no changes it all. At the same time, which tendency occurs in which area is also changing, so if the climate here and right now is constant, in the future this can also change,” he added.

Though not all scientists agree on the levels of climate change, most believe that it is becoming increasingly more important to monitor what is happening on our southernmost continent.

“Antarctica is truly a spectacular place,” Christian Reiss said. “It is changing rapidly and more knowledge about what is changing and why can only help all of us to understand other areas of the planet which are going to change in the future.”

So we might have a chance of readying ourselves for whatever might come down the line.