When one thinks of Antarctica, the first image that springs to mind is usually a harsh contrast of the blue sea and the sky, and the white snow and ice. But on the Antarctic Peninsula, the curved point of the continent which spreads up towards South America, lie rich green carpets of moss, embedded into ice-free areas.
The climate here is warmer than continental Antarctica – in summer, the snow almost completely melts, temperatures reach up to two degrees on average, and several days are often marked by torrents of rain.
It’s a perception of Antarctica that isn’t frequently known.
But telling the often-unheard stories of expeditions, scientific studies and discoveries made on the world’s most uninhabitable continent plays an enormous role in emphasising the need to protect Antarctica.
December 1st marks World Antarctica Day – a day to recognise the signing of the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, which brought together global governments with key stakes in Antarctica. They pledged the icy continent would remain free from exploitation and military activity and instead, Antarctica would be established as a place for peace and scientific exploration.
Now 60 years on from the initial signing, much has changed in the way research and science is conducted in the world’s driest desert. In 1998, a new protocol was introduced into the treaty that focused on the environmental protection of Antarctica and its associated ecosystems. Titled the Madrid Protocol, all future activities had to limit adverse impacts on the environment and avoid effects on climate or weather patterns.
It’s a practice that acknowledges the plethora of information that can be gauged from Antarctica, including the effects of climate change. And for UOW researchers who specialise in the polar region, a lot can be learnt from the untold perspective of Antarctica – that of the peninsula partly covered in moss and flowering vegetation.
Diana King’s research focuses on monitoring how and why Antarctic vegetation is changing. Through analysing photographs and samples of vegetation, she can determine the health status of Antarctic moss, what species are present and if there are changes in species abundance over time.
She says doing so can reveal extraordinary things about climate change and human impact.
“Antarctica is supposedly one of the most pristine areas in the world, so we wouldn’t expect too many human changes in Antarctica, but we are noticing more and more,” Dr King says.
“When these organisms change, such as if a moss shifts from one ice free area to another, or if they disappear, we need to know why that is and how we can protect them.”
As a Sustaining Marine and Coastal Zones research officer in the Global Challenges program, Dr. King is helping to establish a standardised monitoring network of sites across Antarctica, to monitor the biodiversity and environment, as a part of the ECO Antarctica project.
“There’s a lot of different countries and agendas involved in Antarctica, and everyone is looking at their own areas and sites in different ways”
“We want to get an Antarctica-wide assessment of how biodiversity is changing, and ensure that everyone is monitoring and collecting data in the same way, so we can compare all sites,” she says
“Especially with climate change, we need to know what is happening in order to know if we need to do something about it, and how.”
Reducing the effects of climate change in Antarctica is no easy feat, especially when it involves the often-complicated process of informing governments and policy makers of the scientific facts that are needed to develop climate change policy.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was created by the United Nations to assist in this, producing a scientific report every seven years that details the state of knowledge on climate change.
To ensure objectivity, accuracy and transparency, a review process is in place for the report, involving hundreds of scientists worldwide. Each scientist is given a chapter pertaining to their field of knowledge to review, correct and ensure it is written in language that policymakers can understand.
Dr. King is one of only six early career researchers from Australia selected to be part of an international ECR group review of the pivotal report. Her chapter specifically focuses on how climate change has impacted terrestrial biodiversity (plants and animals on land), as well as polar regions.
With each chapter upwards of 150 pages, it is a long process, and something that is done in one’s own time, completely voluntary. Dr King says that early career researchers play a fundamental role in producing the report.
“Early career scientists generally don’t have as much as knowledge [compared to senior researchers], but we know enough about our specific areas.”
“So if you put a massive amount of people together with their own individual knowledge, working on the report all at once, then you’ll have a good review for the IPPC process,” she says.
“They found that using ECRs for the process was effective, because we often have more time, so we can put more effort into it.”
Currently in its first drafting stage, the report will further be reviewed two more times before being published in 2021. From this, governments can develop climate change policy that is effective and targeted.
“The IPCC report is important because we’re telling [policymakers] the facts as we know it, and how confident we are in those facts, without outside parties swaying anything” Dr. King says.
“If they don’t have the scientific information that they need, they’re either going to create climate change policy that is irrelevant, or they’re just not going to do it at all.”
The hole in the ozone layer is like a double-edged sword, with strangely both benefits and negative impacts for Antarctic plants and animals”, she says.
“But more recently, the ozone hole appears to be recovering, with full recovery predicted in the next 50 years. As that’s happening, it’s exposing certain areas that were once protected from the warming that the rest of the world is experiencing, turning them into rapidly warming areas.”
Dr. Waterman’s research focusses on how Antarctic mosses can survive in these extreme conditions, something she has seen firsthand over her five fieldtrips to Antarctica.
She is passionate about understanding how and why particular organisms, such as moss, are resilient and what they can tell us about climate change. Their Antarctic life is fascinating, where they experience freezing and thawing cycles, they can completely dry out, then rehydrate days, years or decades later, essentially coming back to life.
In order to live under ozone depletion, mosses and other organisms protect themselves from the damaging ultraviolent radiation by producing sunscreens. Through analysing these and other chemical signatures down old, long moss shoots, a lot can be revealed about the health of the species, and the environment itself.
“These moss shoots are basically mini ice cores, and using radiocarbon dating, we can go back in time and reveal how old these mosses actually are,” Dr Waterman says.
“We can also see how wet and dry the environment was when they were actually growing, and some can exceed 400 years old. From those cores, we can say they have been , and this can be linked to a regional change in the environment, most likely due to climate change and the ozone hole.”
Dr. King also highlights that the ozone hole, and climate change in particular, isn’t just about warming, but also results in other significant impacts.
“The ozone hole has caused changes in the winds around the entire of Antarctica, and as the winds are a lot stronger, it means the snow is getting blown around more.”
“This means there may not be as much snow there in the summer when it can melt, meaning there’s a lot of drying, but you wouldn’t think, ‘Oh Antarctica is in a drought’, but it’s kind of getting that way”.
“Antarctica is a frozen desert, and so if there’s not as much as snow available, or the precipitation rates change, it means that there’s not as much water for the organisms to use and grow and survive.”
So, what can be done then, to protect Antarctica from the impacts of climate change and human activity, so that it remains the world’s most pristine frozen desert, dedicated to peace and research?
Dr. Waterman says the projects she has been involved with have always had a strict environmental focus, so as to reduce any negative human impact on the frozen continent.
“With any clothing, equipment or even boots that are going back and forth from Antarctica, they always have to be disinfected and completely cleaned out, so that we can prevent species from invading.
“A lot of areas in Antarctica are also protected for particular values, such as a penguin colony, or areas with a high abundance of vegetation, so to get access to them is very strict,” she says.
Due to the extreme conditions, decomposition is not possible in Antarctica. As a result, all waste, materials and human remnants must be removed from the continent when activity is ceased.
Life on the 70 scientific research stations across Antarctica is also closely monitored, from showers kept to once every three days, to the treatment of sewage, to mitigating the potential risk of fuel spills.
With upwards of 50,000 people visiting Antarctica in 2017-2018, lessening the human impact is vital to the continent’s survival.
One such group of annual visitors not only hopes to increase knowledge around climate change and the protection of Antarctica’s environment, but also hopes to encourage and increase the number of women leaders in STEMM industries.
The largest ever all-female expedition to Antarctica, Homeward Bound (HB), is currently on its fourth voyage, with a fifth already planned.
Homeward Bound is a global leadership initiative that aims to empower and influence women in becoming leaders within their industries. Over the course of a year, 80-100 women from STEMM industries are equipped with the knowledge, skills and strategies to help solve some of the world’s biggest sustainability problems.
The program culminates with an expedition to Antarctica, where the future-leaders can observe first-hand the human impact on the environment and inspire awareness and change in addressing global issues.
UOW PhD Student Siobhan Heatwole, who specialises in marine ecology and animal behaviour, is on the current Homeward Bound expedition to Antarctica, HB4.
HB5 will set sail in December 2020. On board will be Global Challenge’s program director Dr. Tamantha Stutchbury, and Challenge Leader of Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones, Senior Professor Sharon Robinson.
Stutchbury says that programs such as Homeward Bound are pivotal in women being seen as leaders of change.
“Women need other women mentors and role models. I am totally frustrated by the lack of representation of scientists, particularly women scientists in industry, on boards, in politics and it is time that this changed.
“Programs like Homeward Bound give us the tools and networks we need to break down the barriers that are preventing us from ensuring a sustainable planet and achieving diversity in global leadership. I am so excited to be accepted as part of Homeward Bound 5.”
ECO Antarctica is an interdisciplinary research project supported by the UOW Global Challenges Program.