Measuring the health of Antarctica’s ecosystems

Researchers use drones to take high-resolution health assessment of Antarctic mosses

Researchers have been granted more than half-a-million-dollars by the Australian Research Council to investigate the cause and consequences of apparent changes to environmental ecosystems in East Antarctica. The funding ($505,000) was awarded through the ARC’s Discovery Projects scheme.

By developing new methods for non-destructive remote sensing studies using drones, researchers will create maps to show the health of moss beds at key sites across the continent to improve our understanding of how climate change is affecting Antarctica’s precious plant communities. In addition, the researchers plan to read the signals of climate captured as the mosses grow to improve regional climate data for Antarctica and gain a better understanding of past regional climate change.

“Antarctica is designated as a preserve for peace and science but is currently experiencing challenges on many fronts including climate change, station development, waste and pollution management as well as rapidly increased tourism,” the project’s lead Chief Investigator and plant ecophysiologist Professor Sharon Robinson said.

“We recently reported the first evidence that human linked climate changes are causing the drying of East Antarctic ecosystems in the Windmill islands near Australia’s Casey Station. Anecdotal accounts suggest that similar drying on an even larger scale may be happening in the Vestfold Hills, which is 1400 kilometres west of Casey, but the quantitative assessment is lacking.

“Rapid drying, if widespread, is significant given the assumption that warming of the Antarctic coastline will melt ice and increase water availability to such ecosystems. We are worried that melt may actually be occurring in rapid pulses with valuable water lost in runoff. This is especially relevant given the heatwaves that occurred on the continent last summer.”

The project has three main objectives, each focused on capturing data about the continent’s moss beds which can preserve a record of hundreds of years of past climate data in their shoots and are used as surrogates to study changes to ecosystems and climate at remote polar sites.

“We will use mosses as microclimate proxies to help determine if East Antarctica shows widespread evidence of terrestrial ecosystem drying and contrast this with the expected warmer and wetter conditions observed on the Antarctic peninsula,” Professor Robinson explained.

“The project will also produce spatially explicit maps of moss bed health at key sites based on novel ultrahigh-resolution remote sensing techniques, to provide an assessment of overall Antarctic terrestrial ecosystem health. We are also aiming to develop hydrological snowmelt models at the appropriate spatial scales to determine the likely resilience of Antarctic moss beds to projected climate change.”

The team involved is highly interdisciplinary, combining plant biologists, a spatial scientist and a quaternary and climate change geoscientist. The UOW Global Challenges ECO Antarctica project led by Dr Melinda Waterman and Professor Robinson contributed to the development of this larger interdisciplinary research initiative.

Working alongside Professor Robinson, who is Executive Director of UOW Global Challenges and has 24 years experience researching the effects of climate change on Antarctic terrestrial communities, is co-Chief Investigator Associate Professor Arko Lucieer who leads the Terraluma lab at the University of Tasmania and Partner Investigators Professor Margaret Barbour from the University of Waikato, New Zealand and Dr Quan Hua from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO).

The project’s outcomes will develop new uses of technology, as well as data, that should benefit a wide range of organisations and countries.

“We plan to provide Antarctic Environmental Managers, from Australia and other nations, with new tools and information to assess the health of plant communities enabling appropriate protection and management of biodiversity and satisfying Australian State of the Environment and International Antarctic Treaty obligations,” Professor Robinson said.

The team also intends to share their project results with other Antarctic scientists and environmental managers through the newly established Antarctic Near Short and Terrestrial Observing System (ANTOS) Expert Group, a sub-group of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

“Our methodologies will be shared with colleagues internationally to ensure that the most important areas of Antarctic terrestrial biodiversity are preserved within the Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPA) network. We will also report key findings to the Federal Government for inclusion in the next Australian State of the Environment Report.”

Antarctica, the coldest place on earth, experienced extremely high temperatures this summer. Between January 23 and 26, the highest ever recorded minimum and maximum temperatures were observed at the Casey Research Station and Robinson’s team described the first recorded heatwave for this part of Antarctica that they have studied for decades.

As a co-author of an article about the event for The Conversation, Professor Robinson explained that Antarctica is not immune to the impact of climate change and that environmental changes can affect different parts of Antarctica in different ways.

“Given the generally cold conditions of Antarctica, the warmth may have benefited the flora (mosses, lichens and two vascular plants), and microbes and invertebrates, but only where liquid water formed. Areas in the Vestfold Hills away from the flooding became more drought-stressed over the summer. The new project will help us to understand the biodiversity winners and losers as climate change reaches the ends of the earth.”