King George Island lies some 120 km off the coast of Antarctica in the Southern Ocean.
It’s an ideal location to study our planet’s changing climate.
Unfortunately, the news isn’t good: This frozen ice cap is rapidly warming up.
Since the 1950s, the temperature has increased by half a degree every 10 years.
The Antarctic continent, like the North Pole, is one
of the regions in the world most affected by global warming.
During summer in the southern hemisphere, scientific bases welcome experts from all over the world. It gives them the opportunity to study the consequences of climate change close up.
It is on this frozen lake that Ana Beatriz Oaquim, a Brazilian oceanographer and Eduardo Oliveira, her Uruguayan partner, began their research.
There are about fifteen scientific bases on this island, which is just 80 km long and 30 km wide. Today many of those bases are simply there to maintain a presence on the great white continent. But others are doing important research.
“The South and North Poles are where we find the least anthropogenic influence, that is to say the least human intervention,” Oaquim explains.
“Conducting research in these places where human influence is minimal makes it much easier to determine possible climatic changes. We always say that the poles amplify all the phenomena we see everywhere else on the globe”.
Several times a week, Oaquim and Oliveira probe and collect water samples from the melting ice.
On today’s expedition, they find that the temperature changes by one degree per metre.
Their goal: to study the concentration of phytoplankton to assess the impact of climate change.
“These measurements allow me to study variations in temperature, pH salinity, and available oxygen in the water,” Oaquim says. “We take measurements every one metre and this allows us to understand the how variations in temperature affect the concentration of microorganisms”.
“Then, I can establish the relationship between those variations and use that information to determine environmental and climatic changes”.
The wind, which is constant in Antarctica, is a useful ally for scientists. Carried across thousands of kilometers, particles from all over the world come to settle here.
“I can’t tell you that all the activities going on around the world can be seen here. But I can tell you that it is possible to record traces of certain human activities in the Poles,” Oaquim says. “Yes, that’s possible”.
In the lab
All of these samples are then studied like the pages of a book. By analysing them, Ana can understand how the Antarctic climate is changing. And her first conclusions are indisputable:
“What we can see with our research is an increase in temperatures over the last decade. And comparing that data with previously published data, we can see that this increase isn’t only regional. When we compare it with data from the northern hemisphere and the southern hemisphere, we can see that overall temperatures are increasing”.
The surface of the Antarctic ice sheet, which had been relatively unaffected by global warming, has dramatically reduced across recent surveys.
Ice expansion decreased from 16 to 14 million square kilometres in November 2016, which is early spring in Antarctica. It is an unprecedented change, caused in part by temperatures some 2-4 degrees Celsius above seasonal norms.
Scientists now agree that Antarctica is a crucial location for climate change research.
Eduardo Oliveira is a meteorologist at Uruguay’s scientific lab on King George Island.
In the last 20 years, he has been on many missions in Antarctica. He has witnessed changes in the climate and seen increasingly large icebergs break off the glaciers.
“Icebergs are sometimes 20 metres high and more than 200 metres wide. You see this glacier behind me, it used to be much bigger. There was a lot more ice. In recent years it has shrunk a lot.
Rising temperatures, melting glaciers, rain instead of snow, air pollution: climate change is having an impact on the Antarctic that alarms the scientists working on King George Island.
Thousands of Adelie penguin chicks have died of hunger due to the unusual expansion of the ice pack; the intestinal flora of living creatures has been altered by rising temperatures; a warmer and more acidic sea has led to coral bleaching.
Another sign of the urgency of the scientists’ task: the cracks that are multiplying in continent’s glaciers, and the dozens of icebergs that break off the ice cap every day.