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Yearly Archives: 2014 − News & Stories


Ice loss in wes­tern Ant­arc­ti­ca

Con­ti­nen­tal ice mas­ses in wes­tern Ant­arc­ti­ca are belie­ved to be less sta­ble than their coun­ter­parts in East Ant­arc­ti­ca. Most likely, they are alrea­dy making a signi­fi­cant con­tri­bu­ti­on to glo­bal sea level rise. This con­tri­bu­ti­on may even incre­a­se stron­gly in the future. One rea­son is that ice mas­ses in wes­tern Ant­arc­ti­ca rest on the ground below sea level over lar­ge are­as. Loss of shelf ice, which has a sta­bi­li­zing effect on gla­ciers in the catch­ment area, are ano­t­her fac­tor.

The ice loss has now been exami­ned and con­fir­med with 4 inde­pen­dent methods. Ear­lier stu­dies focus­sed on one method only, lea­ving the pos­si­bi­li­ty of unde­tec­ted metho­di­cal errors. This risk is eli­mi­na­ted by using 4 inde­pen­dent methods. The­se are laser and radar alti­me­try time-varia­ble gra­vi­ty, sur­face mass balan­ce, and radar-based ice velo­ci­ty and ice thic­kness mea­su­re­ments. All methods con­firm the ice loss and its acce­le­ra­ti­on in recent years.

Over the who­le stu­dy peri­od from 1992 to 2013, the ice loss is mea­su­red at 83±5 Gt/yr (bil­li­on tons per year), with an acce­le­ra­ti­on of 6.1±0.7 Gt/yr2. Loo­king only at the more recent years 2003-2009, the resul­ting ice loss is 84±10 Gt, no signi­fi­cant chan­ge. But the acce­le­ra­ti­on has almost tripled to 16.3±5.6 Gt/yr2. Inclu­ding 2 more years, loo­king at 2003-2011, yiel­ds a hig­her ice loss rate of 102±10 Gt/yr and an acce­le­ra­ti­on of 15.7±4.0 Gt/yr2.

The incre­a­se of acce­le­ra­ti­on is rea­son for con­cern. Cur­r­ent­ly, con­ti­nen­tal wes­tern Ant­arc­ti­ca ice mas­ses are esti­ma­ted to con­tri­bu­te with 0.3 mm/yr to glo­bal sea level rise.

Ice­bergs in Ant­arc­ti­ca.

Icebergs in Antarctica

Source: Geo­phy­si­cal Rese­arch Let­ters

Belo­rus­sia plans Ant­arc­tic sta­ti­on

Belo­rus­sia wants to add yet ano­t­her one to the alrea­dy impres­si­ve num­ber of sta­ti­ons in the “untouched” wil­der­ness of Ant­arc­ti­ca. Work is plan­ned to com­mence in 2015, and in 2017, the new sta­ti­on is sche­du­led to be lar­ge­ly ope­ra­ti­ve. An agree­ment about a sci­en­ti­fic and logisti­cal coope­ra­ti­on was signed in St. Peters­burg in the pre­sence of the pre­si­dents Putin and Luka­schen­ko.

The new sta­ti­on will be situa­ted at Mount Vechern­ya­ya in Tha­la (Tala) Hills, in End­erby Land, East Ant­arc­ti­ca.

A per­ma­nent pre­sence in Ant­arc­ti­ca is necessa­ry for a coun­try to enjoy full mem­ber rights in the Ant­arc­tic Trea­ty sys­tem.

Rus­si­an sta­ti­on Bel­lings­hau­sen in “untouched” ant­arc­tic natu­re. Belo­rus­sia is now plan­ning yet ano­t­her sta­ti­on.

Russian station Bellingshausen

Source: Bela­ru­si­an News

Fea­ther-loss dis­or­der obser­ved in ant­arc­tic pen­gu­ins

The fea­ther-loss dis­or­der is an avi­an dise­a­se that leads to the loss of part of the plu­mage. It has been obser­ved on a num­ber of occa­si­ons in pen­gu­in colo­nies in South Afri­ca and South Ame­ri­ca sin­ce 2006. Litt­le is known about the dise­a­se. It is not even unders­tood if it is cau­sed by bac­te­ria or viru­ses.

In Janu­a­ry 2014, the fea­ther-loss dis­or­der has, for the first time, been obser­ved in Ant­arc­ti­ca. The Ade­lie pen­gu­in colo­ny in Hope Bay, on the nor­the­as­tern Ant­arc­tic Pen­in­su­la, is one of the lar­gest of its kind in Ant­arc­ti­ca, with about 120,000 bree­ding pairs. It is rou­ti­nely cen­sus­ed every week by per­son­nel from the near­by Argen­ti­ne sta­ti­on Espe­r­an­za. In Janu­a­ry, one chick, about 15-20 days old, was found with part­ly mis­sing plu­mage, expo­sing parts of the skin. The remai­ning fea­thers were easi­ly blown away even by wind gusts. Lice or other influ­en­ces were not obser­ved. The chick died 2 days later.

Ano­t­her chick was sub­se­quent­ly found in ano­t­her part of the colo­ny, about 1 kilo­met­re away. This second affec­ted chick could, howe­ver, not be inves­ti­ga­ted in any detail, as it disap­peared and did not come back. Pres­um­a­b­ly, it died soon.

No other affec­ted pen­gu­ins were obser­ved. It seems accord­in­gly that the fea­ther-loss dise­a­se does not spread easi­ly; it is pos­si­ble that it affects only pen­gu­ins with a sup­pres­sed immu­ne sys­tem or a gene­ti­cal dis­po­si­ti­on.

It is unknown how the dise­a­se came from South Afri­ca or South Ame­ri­ca to Ant­arc­ti­ca. The risk of fur­ther sprea­ding is also com­ple­te­ly unknown. It seems, howe­ver, likely that staff from base Espe­r­an­za who had been in touch with pen­gu­in colo­nies in Argen­ti­na may unin­ten­tio­nal­ly have brought the dise­a­se with them. Tou­rism might be ano­t­her vec­tor, but it is com­pul­so­ry for tou­rists to dis­in­fect boots and to clean clot­hing and other equip­ment care­ful­ly befo­re arri­val in Ant­arc­ti­ca and any lan­ding the­re, to pre­vent sprea­ding dise­a­ses or ali­en plant spe­ci­es.

Ade­lie chick with fea­ther-loss dis­or­der. Hope Bay, Ant­arc­ti­ca, Janu­a­ry 2014. Pho­to: And­res Bar­bo­sa.

Adelie chick with feather-loss disorder, Hope Bay, Antarctica

Source: Ant­arc­tic Sci­ence

Quant­arc­ti­ca: free GIS to make ant­arc­tic rese­arch data acces­si­ble for all

Sci­en­tists are con­stant­ly gathe­ring lar­ge amounts of data in and about Ant­arc­ti­ca. But how can the public access and use the­se data? The Nor­we­gi­an Polar Insti­tue has made an effort to make sci­en­ti­fic data from Ant­arc­ti­ca acces­si­ble for ever­y­bo­dy by publi­shing Quant­arc­ti­ca” title=”Quantarctica” target=”_blank”>Quantarctica, a free open source GIS (geo­gra­phic infor­ma­ti­on sys­tem) to com­pi­le ant­arc­tic sci­en­ti­fic data. The sys­tem is based on Quan­tum GIS and has data wit­hin ocea­no­gra­phy, atmo­s­phe­ric sci­ence, geo­lo­gy and bio­lo­gy.

As soon as the soft­ware is instal­led, it is pos­si­ble to use Quant­arc­ti­ca off­line.

Sci­en­ti­fic users can also upload their data to publish them quick­ly to a wide public.

Quant­arc­ti­ca (Screen­shot): free open source GIS with sci­en­ti­fic data from various rese­arch bran­ches in Ant­arc­ti­ca.

Quantarctica (Screenshot)

Source: Quant­arc­ti­ca

Vol­ca­nic acti­vi­ty under Thwai­tes Gla­cier con­tri­bu­tes to mel­ting

The Thwai­tes Gla­cier in West Ant­arc­ti­ca has recent­ly attrac­ted con­si­derable media atten­ti­on, as sci­en­tists have pre­dict it to col­laps lar­ge­ly in the future. It is up to 4 kilo­me­tres thick and lar­ge enough to con­tri­bu­te with 1-2 metres to glo­bal sea level rise – a dra­ma­tic value. So far, warm sea water has been made respon­si­ble for gla­cier mel­ting on the coast, but now the­re is evi­dence that a signi­fi­cant part of mel­ting actual­ly takes place at the gla­cier base, away from the coast. Thwai­tes Gla­cier is lar­ge­ly based well below sea level, as is the case for lar­ge parts of the West Ant­arc­tic ice shield, a fact that con­tri­bu­tes to its lack of sta­bi­li­ty.

Timing and dura­ti­on of a col­laps are, howe­ver, cur­r­ent­ly unknown, even though it seems wide­ly accep­ted amongst sci­en­tists that a col­laps is very likely. But one of the main influ­en­ces on gla­cier dyna­mics were so far unknown: the geo­ther­mal heat flux from the under­ly­ing crust to the gla­cier ice. Until now, it has been belie­ved that geo­ther­mal heat trans­fer is even­ly dis­tri­bu­t­ed over the area of the under­ly­ing crust.

Sci­en­tists of the Insti­tu­te for Geo­phy­sics of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Aus­tin have now reve­a­led that this is anything but the case. Sub­gla­cial meltwa­ter move­ment under the Thwai­tes Gla­cier was map­ped with radar-based methods. The result is that meltwa­ter pro­duc­tion is very uneven­ly dis­tri­bu­t­ed. This can be used to cal­cu­la­te the geo­ther­mal heat flux under the gla­cier, which reaches values up to 200 mil­li­watts per squa­re met­re while aver­aging near 100 over the who­le area. In com­pa­ri­son, the average value for all con­ti­nents on Earth is just near 65 mil­li­watts per squa­re met­re.

The­se values of geo­ther­mal heat flux are con­si­de­red “signi­fi­cant” for gla­cier and ice sheet dyna­mics. The Thwai­tes Gla­cier is accord­in­gly loo­sing lar­ge volu­mes of ice due to mel­ting at its base. The geo­ther­mal heat flux is not influ­en­ced by cli­ma­te chan­ges, as oppo­sed to mel­ting that takes place near the coast, in the con­ta­ct zone with sea water which is get­ting incre­a­singly war­mer.

It is the geo­lo­gy which is respon­si­ble for sub-gla­cial mel­ting. Wes­tern Ant­arc­ti­ca is geo­lo­gi­cal­ly acti­ve. Sci­en­tists belie­ve the­re is a rift sys­tem under the ice, simi­lar to the Rift Val­ley of east Afri­ca. This rift sys­tem invol­ves incre­a­sed mag­ma move­ments in the crust and pos­si­b­ly vol­ca­nism at the gla­cier base, simi­lar to vol­ca­noes in Ice­land.

Don Blan­kenship, sci­en­tists of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas and one of the aut­hor of a recent­ly publis­hed stu­dy, descri­bed the Thwai­tes Gla­cier as fol­lows: The gla­cier “sits on some­thing more like a mul­ti-bur­ner sto­ve­top with bur­ners put­ting out heat at dif­fe­rent levels at dif­fe­rent loca­ti­ons. … And then you plop the most cri­ti­cal dyna­mi­cal­ly unsta­ble ice sheet on pla­net Earth in the midd­le of this thing, and then you try to model it. It’s vir­tual­ly impos­si­ble.”

But of cour­se sci­en­tists are try­ing to model the Thwai­tes Gla­cier to pre­dict its future dyna­mics. The new know­ledge about geo­ther­mal heat flux under the gla­cier will be a very valu­able con­tri­bu­ti­on to new models.

Gla­cier in the Ant­arc­tic Pen­in­su­la: a dwarf com­pa­red to the Thwai­tes Gla­cier.

Glacier, Antarctic Peninsula

Source: Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas

Japan wants to con­ti­nue wha­ling in Ant­arc­ti­ca

They can’t just let it be: Japan’s con­ser­va­ti­ve prime minis­ter Shin­zo Abe has decla­red to plead for a con­ti­nua­tion of Japa­ne­se wha­ling. In ear­ly 2014, the hig­hest UN court had decla­red Japa­ne­se wha­ling in its cur­rent form for ille­gal, as it is decla­red as sci­en­ti­fic wha­ling, but is far from mee­ting any requi­re­ments to qua­li­fy as such. The ver­dict has, howe­ver, left the pos­si­bi­li­ty open to orga­ni­ze a new wha­ling pro­gram­me that could meet the requi­re­ments, which inclu­de a stron­ger focus on non-let­hal methods and rele­vant publi­ca­ti­ons.

Abe is quo­ted say­ing that he wants to streng­t­hen sci­en­ti­fic rese­arch on wha­le popu­la­ti­ons and thus achie­ve new com­mer­cial wha­ling – remar­kab­le how “sci­en­ti­fic” and com­mer­cial wha­ling are con­nec­ted in the per­spec­ti­ve of the Japa­ne­se government. Abe also expres­sed it is sad that eating wha­le meat is not inter­na­tio­nal­ly reco­gni­zed as part of Japa­ne­se cul­tu­re. This part of Japa­ne­se cul­tu­re does, howe­ver, enjoy only limi­ted popu­la­ri­ty even in Japan: demand for wha­le meat is lower than sup­ply, des­pi­te com­mer­cial and even govern­men­tal pro­mo­ti­on.

Min­ke wha­le in the Ant­arc­tic Pen­in­su­la. In 2005, Japan kil­led about 3500 Min­ke wha­les for “sci­en­ti­fic pur­po­ses”.

Minke whale, Antarctic peninsula

Source: Spie­gel online

Uplift of the nort­hern Ant­arc­tic Pen­in­su­la: result of tec­to­nics and ice loss

The pro­cess of land uplift as a con­se­quence of loss of lar­ge ice mas­ses is well known from nort­hern Scan­di­na­via and Spits­ber­gen, whe­re traces of such events inclu­ding rai­sed beaches can be seen in many pla­ces. In Ant­arc­ti­ca, it is more tri­cky as the­re is not much ice-free land.

Pre­cise GPS-mea­su­re­ments have reve­a­led recent uplift dyna­mics of the nort­hern Ant­arc­tic Pen­in­su­la. And not just that: while uplift was almost negli­gi­ble with 0.1 mm/year until 2002, the value jum­ped up to 8.8 mm/yr – an incre­a­se by a fac­tor of almost 90! This is remar­kab­le, both in terms of the deve­lo­p­ment and the abso­lu­te value of pre­sent land uplift: near­ly 1 cm/year is very fast, geo­lo­gi­cal­ly spea­king.

The col­lap­se of the Lar­sen B ice shelf in 2002 has been assu­med to be the main dri­ving for­ce behind the land uplift: immense volu­mes of floa­ting shelf ice bro­ke off the east coast of the Ant­arc­tic Pen­in­su­la and floated out into the Wed­dell Sea as lar­ge tabu­lar ice­bergs. The loss of form­er­ly land-based was a con­se­quence of the loss of the sta­bi­li­zing ice shelf. The result of such an immense loss of weight is iso­sta­tic rebound of the crust, lea­ding to land uplift.

Geo­phy­si­cal model­ling has now shown the ice loss to be insuf­fi­ci­ent to exp­lain rate and deve­lo­p­ment of land uplift as obser­ved. Move­ments in the mant­le, at 100 km depths and lower, need to be taken into account to exp­lain the data ful­ly.

The Brans­field Strait, a small ocea­nic basin sepa­ra­ting the South Shet­land Islands from the nor­thwes­tern Ant­arc­tic Pen­in­su­la, is a tec­to­ni­cal­ly acti­ve area. The­re are several vol­ca­noes in the area that erup­ted very recent­ly in geo­lo­gi­cal term, and several frac­tu­re zones and pla­te bounda­ries.

Pen­gu­in Island: a young vol­ca­nic island in the geo­lo­gi­cal­ly acti­ve Brans­field Strait. Next to vol­ca­nism, land uplift is ano­t­her con­se­quence of the­se tec­to­nics, ampli­fied by recent degla­cia­ti­on of the Ant­arc­tic Pen­in­su­la.

Penguin Island: a young volcanic island in the South Shetland Islands

Source: Earth and Pla­ne­ta­ry Sci­ence Let­ters

New sta­tis­tics for tou­rism in Ant­arc­ti­ca

The Inter­na­tio­nal Asso­cia­ti­on of Ant­arc­tic Tour ope­ra­tors has publis­hed new sta­tis­tics of tou­rism in Ant­arc­ti­ca. Num­bers for the now finis­hed 2013-14 sea­son are not fina­li­zed yet, but preli­mi­na­ry figu­res indi­ca­te a sta­ble deve­lo­p­ment without major chan­ges from pre­vious years. In the 2012-13 sea­son, a total of 34,316 tou­rists visi­ted Ant­arc­ti­ca, a figu­re not expec­ted to chan­ge too much for 2013-14. Accord­ing to a pro­gno­sis for 2014-15, expec­ted visi­tor num­bers of 36,545 indi­ca­te a future growth of 6-7 %.

The­re have not been lar­ge fluc­tua­tions sin­ce 2009-10: visi­tor num­bers have lar­ge­ly been sta­ble bet­ween 34,000 and 36,000, with the excep­ti­on of the 2011-12 sea­son, when num­bers drop­ped down to 26,500 fol­lowing the ban on hea­vy oil as ship fuel in the Ant­arc­tic Trea­ty area. As a con­se­quence, some lar­ger ships drop­ped Ant­arc­ti­ca as a desti­na­ti­on. A good deve­lo­p­ment from an envi­ron­men­tal per­spec­ti­ve, con­si­de­ring the poten­ti­al­ly dra­ma­tic con­se­quen­ces of a spill of hea­vy fuel/crude oil.

Out of about 35,000 tou­rists visi­t­ing Ant­arc­ti­ca, a lar­ge majo­ri­ty of 71 % is tra­vel­ling to the Ant­arc­tic Pen­in­su­la with small to medi­um-sized ships with fewer than 501 pas­sen­gers. The­se ships offer lan­dings to their pas­sen­gers. As the maxi­mum num­ber of tou­rists ashore is limi­ted to 100, ships with more than 100 pas­sen­gers offer a rota­ti­on sys­tem.

Ships with more than 500 pas­sen­gers do not offer lan­dings, they con­sti­tu­te the “crui­se only” cate­go­ry, which descri­bes exact­ly what they are doing (and what not). 27 % of ant­arc­tic tou­rism is crui­se only.

The pro­por­ti­on of tho­se who visit the inte­rior of Ant­arc­ti­ca by flight is small, num­be­ring about 1 %. This inclu­des visits to the South Pole and moun­tai­nee­ring expe­di­ti­ons to Mount Vin­cent, the hig­hest moun­tain of Ant­arc­ti­ca.

Expe­di­ti­on crui­se ships at the South Shet­land Islands: this is how most tou­rists visit Ant­arc­ti­ca. MS Nordnor­ge to the left, MV Gri­go­riy Mikheev (not ope­ra­ting any­mo­re) to the right. A govern­men­tal sup­ply ship in the back­ground.

Tourism, Antarctica: ships at the South Shetland Islands

Source: IAA­TO

Arti­cle about Ross Sea voya­ge publis­hed by Dale L. Jacob­sen

Dale L. Jacob­sen is a well-known aut­hor in Aus­tra­lia and par­ti­ci­pant on the voya­ge into the Ross Sea on board MV Orte­li­us in Febru­a­ry 2013. She has writ­ten an arti­cle about her ant­arc­tic adven­ture which is now publis­hed on Tra­ve­lo­so­phy. A book is in pre­pa­ra­ti­on.

Tay­lor Val­ley, one of the famou­se McMur­do Dry Val­leys, visi­ted during the abo­ve-men­tio­ned voya­ge 2013, descri­bed in Dale L. Jacobsen’s recent arti­cle.

Taylor Valley, McMurdo Dry Valleys

Mac­qua­rie Island free of rats, mice and rab­bits

Mac­qua­rie Island is 1500 kilo­me­tres sou­the­ast of Tas­ma­nia and belongs to Aus­tra­lia. For deca­des, the once so rich sea­b­ird popu­la­ti­ons of the island have suf­fe­red stron­gly from intro­du­ced rats, mice and rab­bits: eggs and chicks were sto­len from nests by ten thousands, bree­ding habi­tat was des­troy­ed, name­ly tus­soc grass, and even a lands­li­de that wiped part of a King pen­gu­in colo­ny out is said to have been cau­sed by ero­si­on on a slo­pe depri­ved of its vege­ta­ti­on by rab­bits.

In 2007, the governments of Aus­tra­lia and Tas­ma­nia laun­ched a pro­ject of 17 mil­li­on Euro to era­di­ca­te the unwan­ted spe­ci­es and turn the island back into its natu­ral sta­te. During a first pha­se, poi­son­ed bait finis­hed most of the ali­ens off. In a second pha­se, hun­ters with dogs made sure not a sin­gle rat, rab­bit or mou­se sur­vi­ved. A two year con­trol pha­se has now con­fir­med the suc­cess­ful com­ple­ti­on of the pro­ject.

The era­di­ca­ti­on of feral cats, which had devas­ta­ting effects on the sea­b­ird colo­nies, was alrea­dy com­ple­ted in the year 2000.

The Mac­qua­rie Island pro­ject is the lar­gest of its kind so far, and it is fol­lo­wed clo­se­ly by orga­niz­a­ti­ons run­ning simi­lar pro­jects on other island. The cur­r­ent­ly lar­gest and most chal­len­ging pro­ject of this kind is the ongo­ing rat era­di­ca­ti­on pro­ject on South Geor­gia.

Mac­qua­rie Island is now offi­cial­ly rodent free.

Macquarie Island

Source: ABC News

“Sci­en­ti­fic” wha­ling sen­ten­ced by Inter­na­tio­nal Court of Jus­ti­ce

A recent sen­tence by the Inter­na­tio­nal Court of Jus­ti­ce in The Hague may not have stop­ped Japa­ne­se wha­ling in Ant­arc­ti­ca final­ly, but it has at least given it a serious legal blow. It is now estab­lis­hed by the hig­hest inter­na­tio­nal court that Japa­ne­se wha­ling in its cur­rent form (!) is not cove­r­ed by exemp­ti­ons for sci­en­ti­fic wha­ling as defi­ned by the Inter­na­tio­nal Wha­ling Com­mis­si­on.

Japan is issuing licen­ses for kil­ling wha­les des­pi­te a mora­to­ri­um against wha­ling of 1986. Japa­ne­se aut­ho­ri­ties claim sci­en­ti­fic rea­sons, but the kil­ling of about 3600 wha­les has resul­ted in only 2 peer-review­ed sci­en­ti­fic publi­ca­ti­ons. Accord­ing to the Court in The Hague, this is not suf­fi­ci­ent to jus­ti­fy the num­ber of wha­les kil­led.

Each year, Japa­ne­se aut­ho­ri­ties issue licen­ces for more than 1000 wha­les to be har­pooned. Most of the­se, about 950, are Mink wha­les, fol­lo­wed by Hump­back and Fin wha­les with about 50 each. The­se num­bers have often not been com­ple­ted, thanks to the acti­vi­ties of inter­na­tio­nal envi­ron­men­ta­lists such as Sea She­pherd.

Accord­ing to the recent sen­tence, Japa­ne­se wha­ling is clear­ly against the 1986 mora­to­ri­um on wha­ling. Youn­ger histo­ry has shown in many cases that inter­na­tio­nal law does not keep governments from doing wha­te­ver they want, but Japa­ne­se offi­cials have announ­ced that they want to respect the sen­tence. This may, howe­ver, also mean that the cur­rent wha­ling pro­gram­me may be repla­ced by a new, “sci­en­ti­fic” one. If so, the new one would, at least, inclu­de a signi­fi­cant­ly redu­ced num­ber of wha­les to be kil­led and more non-let­hal rese­arch efforts. Time will have to show if such a pro­gram­me would be attrac­ti­ve enough for Japa­ne­se wha­ling ships to take the long trip into Ant­arc­tic waters. The cur­rent aut­hor stron­gly belie­ves that cer­tain­ly the wha­les and the mari­ne envi­ron­ment, but also the repu­ta­ti­on and credi­bi­li­ty of sci­ence in gene­ral would bene­fit from a com­ple­te stop of Japa­ne­se (and other) wha­ling.

Hump­back wha­les in Ant­arc­ti­ca: not yet safe from Japa­ne­se har­poons, but the­re is hope.

Humpback whales, Antarctica

Source: Spie­gel Online

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