Tag Archives: antarctic

Ship of legendary explorer Shackleton found in Antarctica 107 years after it sank

The Endurance was finally uncovered, over a century after it sank in the Weddell Sea in Antarctica. The ship was part of a famous expedition led by Sir Ernest Shackleton but got trapped in pack ice, forcing the expedition members to camp for months in the Antarctic and make a heroic escape.

Despite laying under 3km (10,000 feet) of frigid water for over a century, the ship seems to be in impeccable shape, almost frozen in time. The ship was discovered just several kilometers from where it was abandoned after a search mounted by the Falklands Maritime Heritage Trust (FMHT) investigated the area for two weeks.

Using a South African icebreaker, Agulhas II, the search team deployed submersible units to comb the area. After coming across various interesting targets, they finally uncovered the wreck site on Saturday, spending the next few days documenting and photographing the site.

In a blog post announcing the find, Director of Exploration Mensun Bound couldn’t contain his excitement:

“Ladies and Gentlemen,

I don’t know how else to say this, so I am going to come straight to the point.

We have found the wreck of the Endurance!”

“In a long career of surveying and excavating historic shipwrecks, I have never seen one as bold and beautiful as this.”

The mission’s leader, the veteran polar geographer Dr. John Shears also told the BBC that this is an incredible achievement, describing the moment when they saw the ship as “jaw-dropping”. Shears also emphasized that this was “the world’s most difficult shipwreck search”, battling blizzards, bitterly cold temperatures, and constantly shifting sea-ice. “We have achieved what many people said was impossible,” Shears said.

Pristine shape

The ship looks much like it did when it was last photographed by Shackleton’s filmmaker, Frank Hurley, in 1915. While some things have obviously broken down, you can still see the hull, the deck, and the porthole window from Shackleton’s cabin. The anchors are still around, as are some of the boots and crockery the crew abandoned with the ship.

“Most remarkable of all was her name – E N D U R A N C E – which arcs across her stern with perfect clarity. And below is the 5-pointed Polaris star. Just as in Hurley’s famous photographs,” Bound adds.

Some sea creatures (such as filter feeders) have colonized the wreck but there don’t seem to be any wood-eating worms that would degrade the ship structurally.

The wreck itself cannot be moved or disturbed in any way, as it is a designated monument under the international Antarctic Treaty. Therefore, researchers can’t bring anything to the surface, and all they’ve done now was to document the position and situation for the ship.

A legendary expedition

Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton led three expeditions into the Antarctic. The one that employed the Endurance was launched in 1914, and Endurance departed from South Georgia, British Overseas Territory in the southern Atlantic Ocean, for the Weddell Sea on 5 December. But the situation quickly took a turn for the worse, as the ship became trapped in an ice floe. The crew waited until February and then realized that the ship would be trapped until spring (in the southern hemisphere, spring starts in September).

Shackleton ordered the conversion of the ship to a winter station, and the crew managed to tough it out until September. But when the ice started to release, the crew’s hopes that the ship would be freed safely were destroyed. The ice put extreme pressure on the ship’s hull, damaging it, and the ship was taking water. In November, the crew abandoned the ship.

The next two months, Shackleton and his crew camped on a large, flat ice floe (basically an ice island), hoping that it would drift towards Paulet Islands 250 miles (402 km) away, where some stores were cached. This too failed. Shackleton decided to set up a more permanent camp on a different flow, hoping to drift to a safe island. This too did not happen. The floe broke in two, and Shackleton’s crew was forced into lifeboats, heading towards the nearest island.

The exhausted men managed to end up their three lifeboats at Elephant Island, 346 miles (557 km) from where the Endurance sank, after being adrift on ice for almost 500 days. Shackleton gave his mittens to photographer Frank Hurley (who had lost his) and suffered severe frostbites as a result. In a desperate last-ditch attempt, Shackleton decided to take one of the three lifeboats and head for whaling stations 720 nautical miles (1,334 km) away.

Launching the lifeboat from the shore of Elephant Island, 24 April 1916.

Shackleton packed minimal supplies and head out with a handful of people, only to be met by a hurricane. They landed on an island and Shackleton and two members braced a yet-untried land route over dangerous, uncharted mountainous terrain. Ultimately, they were able to reach a whaling station and after several tries, rescue the surviving members of the expedition.

The fact that researchers now have such a connection to this expedition is a spectacular achievement. “We will pay our respects to ‘The Boss’,” said Dr. Shears, using the nickname the Endurance crew had for their leader.

Still, the current expedition hopes they can uncover even more from the ship and will now embark on thorough scientific research of the vessel.

“You can even see the holes that Shackleton’s men cut in the decks to get through to the ‘tween decks to salvage supplies, etc, using boat hooks. In particular, there was the hole they cut through the deck in order to get into “The Billabong”, the cabin in “The Ritz” that had been used by Hurley, Leonard Hussey (meteorologist), James McIlroy (surgeon) and Alexander Macklin (surgeon), but which was used to store food supplies at the time the ship went down,” Bound concluded in an article for the BBC.

‘Rivers’ of air are cracking open the Antarctic — for global warming, this is a problem

Atmospheric rivers are narrow corridors of moisture that move horizontally across the planet. They play an important role in the global water cycle — although these ‘rivers’ cover less than 10% of the planet’s atmosphere, they’re responsible for 90% of the global north-south water vapor transport. Now, researchers have found another effect of these atmospheric rivers: they open up holes in the Antarctic sea ice.

West Greenland ice melt is one of the main contributors to sea level rise.

Storms have been known to trigger large openings in sea ice — openings that can be tens or even hundreds of thousands of square kilometers across. But storms alone can’t explain why these openings (also called polynyas) form the way they do. Now, a team of researchers at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, believe they have the answer.

Diana Francis and colleagues analyzed major two major polynya events, from 1973 and 2017, finding that atmospheric rivers bringing heat and water vapor played a key role in the event. In 2017, one such river singlehandedly raised air temperatures in the Weddell Sea in West Antarctica by 10°C.

The interaction is complex. It’s not just that the rising temperatures melt and break the ice. The heat and water vapor also make storms more intense, which also contribute to ice breaking. So the atmospheric rivers contribute both directly and indirectly to this process.

Changes in the Antarctic ice sheet’s contribution to global sea level, 1992 to 2017. Credit: IMBIE/Planetary Visions/NASA.

Polynyas aren’t necessarily bad: on one hand, they can be good for the local environment.

“Polynyas strongly influence the physical and ecological dynamics of the Southern Ocean,” said co-author Kyle Mattingly, a post-doctoral researcher at the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “They serve as giant ‘windows’ in the sea ice that allow large amounts of heat to move from the ocean to the atmosphere, modifying regional and global ocean circulation. They also affect the timing and magnitude of phytoplankton (algae) blooms, which are the base of the marine food web.”

But from a climate perspective, this is troubling. The open sea is darker than the ice that covers it, which means it absorbs more heat, which can melt even more ice and so on, contributing to a local and even a global warming. To make matters even more concerning, global warming is expected to increase the frequency of atmospheric river events by around 50% if the current trends continue.

Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are growing thinner as a result of man-made greenhouse emissions. But the phenomenon isn’t always linear or clear. This is why understanding the interlinked processes that shape the Antarctic is so important for our overall understanding of climate change.

“Our study will pave the way for greater understanding of climate variability and climate change in these regions,” concludes Mattingly.

Journal Reference: “On the crucial role of atmospheric rivers in the two major Weddell Polynya events in 1973 and 2017 in Antarctica” Science Advances (2020). advances.sciencemag.org/lookup … .1126/sciadv.abc2695

Antarctica records its hottest day in history

It was a breezy 18.3°C (64.94°F) at the northern tip of the continent’s peninsula. Not exactly ice-cream weather, but not that far off either.

The Esperanza base houses 55 inhabitants in winter, including 10 families and 2 school teachers. It is one of only two civilian settlements in the Antarctic.

Antarctica’s climate is the coldest on Earth. Land-based meteorological stations have measured temperatures as low as −89.2 °C (−128.6 °F), and satellites identified even lower temperatures: −93.2 °C (−135.8 °F). But these record-breaking temperatures seemed long gone in the Arctic, as the weather resembled an average spring day. According to Argentina’s meteorological agency, the temperature reached 18.3°C on Friday — that’s positive, not negative degrees.

The temperature was recorded at Esperanza base — a permanent research station in the Trinity Peninsula, and one of only two civilian settlements in Antarctica. The record is even more remarkable as it comes only five years after the previous one 17.5°C (63.5°F), set in March 2015. It still needs to be checked and confirmed, but it is unlikely that the weather station made a big error.

The record temperature was affected by strong winds moving down mountain slopes, bringing hotter air towards Esperanza. However, the larger context is telling.

Since the 1950s, the temperature in Antarctica has risen by more than 0.05 °C (0.09 °F) per decade. There is evidence of widespread snow melt and glacier retreat around the Antarctic peninsula, owed to man-made climate heating.

Overall, Antarctica has warmed much more than the global average. A 2012 study from Nature Geoscience found that the average temperature at the Byrd Station (a former US research) station rose by 2.4 °C (4.3 °F), with warming fastest in its winter and spring.

There is also evidence that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is losing mass at an accelerating rate. Antarctica is losing ice 6 times faster than in the 1980s.

So while this new temperature record only shows a single point, it is also representative of the broader Antarctic context. The fact that it’s warm enough to wear a Tshirt is no coincidence — and might be a sign for what’s to come on the continent.


Antarctic instability could raise sea levels by half a meter in 150 years

We’re seriously underestimating Antarctica’s ability to push global sea level rise, a new study reports.


Image credits Luis Valiente.

Ice masses in the southern continent are becoming extremely unstable due to climate change, the authors explain, but this isn’t readily apparent. The team behind the study, with members from the Georgia Institute of Technology, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and the University of Washington, says that this hidden instability will likely accelerate water flow into the ocean and raise sea levels much faster than previously estimated.

Thawing the Antarctic

Five Antarctic glaciers have doubled their rate of ice loss over the last six years, according to the study, with at least one (the Thwaites Glacier) being in danger of collapse. While we can’t accurately estimate exactly how glacier runoff will evolve over the coming 50 to 800 years yet (this is dependant bot on our choices and on unknown factors such as topography), the team have done their best to cover all possible outcomes. For this, they’ve run 500 ice flow simulations for Thwaites’ evolution. While there was a wide range of variation between the scenarios, they all ended in the eventual collapse of Thwaites.

Glacier collapse has a lot to do with the geometry of the bedrock underpinning the ice. Glaciers whose leading edge ‘hangs’ in the ocean instead of being supported by bedrock are called tidewater glaciers. The point at which they glaciers start to float is the grounding line. Glacier instability/collapse first starts here.

Glacier shelf interaction.

Image credits Ted Scambos, Michon Scott / National Snow and Ice Data Center.

Warmer temperatures also heat up the ocean water, which starts eating away at the bottom of the glacier (which raises sea levels). This process also accelerates the rate at which glaciers fragment and float out into the sea. This is perhaps the most worrying process from a sea-level perspective: these bits of ice eventually melt in the wider ocean, but the process also speeds up the rate at which glaciers slide into the waters (as they’re no longer buoyed up by the ocean), leading to more and more melting.

“Once ice is past the grounding line and just over water, it’s contributing to sea level because buoyancy is holding it up more than it was,” says Alex Robel, an assistant professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and the study’s lead author. “Ice flows out into the floating ice shelf and melts or breaks off as icebergs.”

The simulations show that even if we do stop climate warming in the future, instability in Thwaites will keep feeding water into the global ocean at extremely fast rates compared to the baseline value. These results are based on present-day ice melt rates, meaning that higher rates of global warming will lead to faster and stronger melt rates than identified in this paper.

Worst of all, if Thwaites does collapse, it will trigger a feedback loop leading to more and more melt as it slides into the ocean at faster rates.

“If you trigger this instability, you don’t need to continue to force the ice sheet by cranking up temperatures. It will keep going by itself, and that’s the worry,” said Robel.  “Climate variations will still be important after that tipping point because they will determine how fast the ice will move.”

“After reaching the tipping point, Thwaites Glacier could lose all of its ice in a period of 150 years. That would make for a sea level rise of about half a meter (1.64 feet),” adds NASA JPL scientist Helene Seroussi, a co-author of the paper. “The process becomes self-perpetuating”.

Currently, sea levels are 20 cm (almost 8 inches) above pre-industrial levels. Sea ice doesn’t raise sea levels as it melts — all that ice is already in the water so it already contributes a volume to the global ocean — but land-borne glaciers do. Antarctica holds the most land-supported ice, so it can have a very sizeable contribution to sea levels.

“There’s almost eight times as much ice in the Antarctic ice sheet as there is in the Greenland ice sheet and 50 times as much as in all the mountain glaciers in the world,” Robel explains.

It’s not yet clear whether Thwaites has reached the tipping point or not, but its outer edge is sinking into the ocean faster than previously recorded. The findings are particularly worrying as the success of current efforts to proof cities and installations against sea level rise are wholly dependent on having accurate predictions. However, the current study shows that our current forecasts aren’t very reliable.

“You want to engineer critical infrastructure to be resistant against the upper bound of potential sea level scenarios a hundred years from now,” Robel said. “It can mean building your water treatment plants and nuclear reactors for the absolute worst-case scenario, which could be two or three feet of sea level rise from Thwaites Glacier alone, so it’s a huge difference.”

Another surprising finding made by the team is that when climate conditions fluctuate strongly, Antarctic ice evens out the effects. Ice flow in such conditions will increase gradually, not wildly, but the instability produced the opposite effect in the simulations.

“The system didn’t damp out the fluctuations, it actually amplified them. It increased the chances of rapid ice loss,” Robel said.

“[Almost total ice loss in Thwaites] could happen in the next 200 to 600 years. It depends on the bedrock topography under the ice, and we don’t know it in great detail yet,” Seroussi said.

The paper “Marine ice sheet instability amplifies and skews uncertainty in projections of future sea-level rise” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Arctic ecosystems “highly responsive” to climate change — and very hard to fix once broken

Climate change is impacting the Arctic far quicker than we’ve assumed, an international team of researchers reports. Other research looking into how Arctic life fared after the meteorite impact that wiped out the dinosaurs gives us a glimpse into how ecosystems in the area might evolve under climate change.


Image credits Rolf Johansson.

Ecosystems in the Arctic undergo rapid, dramatic, and long-lasting changes in response to climate shifts — even those of average magnitude, according to a new study published in Environmental Research Letters. The study, conducted by an international research team led by members from the University of Maine, finds a “surprisingly tight coupling” between climate shifts and environmental responses in the Arctic. The paper thus overturns previous assumptions that environmental responses are delayed or dampened by internal ecosystem dynamics, allowing only significant climate shifts to have an effect on local ecosystems.

The heat is on

“Our analyses reveal rapid environmental responses to nonlinear climate shifts, underscoring the highly responsive nature of Arctic ecosystems to abrupt transitions,” the study’s abstract reads.

After 1994, mean air temperatures over West Greenland (as recorded in June) were 2.2°C higher than baseline, the team reports, and have increased by an additional 1.1°C since 2006. Mean winter precipitation also doubled in quantity (from 20mm to 40mm) over the area after 1994.

The findings come from over 40 years’ worth of weather data and paleoecological reconstructions. The team explains that these “abrupt climate shifts” were accompanied by “nearly synchronous” environmental responses in the area, including increased ice sheet discharge and dust, and advanced plant phenology (i.e. earlier onset of the life cycles of plants in the area). Lakes in the area experienced earlier ice-outs and greater diversity of algae.

In light of these findings, the team cautions that Arctic ecosystems are much more responsive to abrupt transitions — even moderate magnitude ones — than assumed. The strength of climate forcing (i.e. warming) in the area has also been underestimated, they add. Understanding how these ecosystems respond to abrupt climate change is key to predicting their evolution in the future and managing potentially damaging shifts says Jasmine Saros, the paper’s lead author.

“We present evidence that climate shifts of even moderate magnitude can rapidly force strong, pervasive environmental changes across a high-latitude system,” she says.

“Prior research on ecological response to abrupt climate change suggested delayed or dampened ecosystem responses. In the Arctic, however, we found that nonlinear environmental responses occurred with or shortly after documented climate shifts in 1994 and 2006.”

How does this pan out?


Penguins don’t live in the Arctic but they’re cute, so here’s a picture of some.
Image credits Siggy Nowak.

Another unrelated study published in the journal Palaeontology looked at how life on the other end of the planet — Antarctica — recovered after the impact of Chicxulub, the dinosaur-killing meteorite. This impact triggered a massive, planet-wide extinction event known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction some 66 million years ago.

Although the effects of this impact (e.g. transient cooling, global darkness, and expansion of anoxic waters) were “probably short-lived, […] biogeochemical cycling and ecosystem function remained disturbed for an extended period”. It took local marine ecosystems roughly one million years to return to pre-extinction levels, they explain.

The K-Pg event was caused by the impact of a 10 km asteroid on the Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, and took place while our planet was already in the throes of environmental instability caused by a major volcanic episode. In the end, Chicxulub’s visit would wipe out around 60% of the marine species around Antarctica, and 75% of species around the world. This turned out to be quite a fortunate development for us humans, as the impact fundamentally changed the evolutionary history of life on Earth. Most of the animal groups you know today, including us mammals, were only able to rise as a direct consequence of this impact.

“This study gives us further evidence of how rapid environmental change can affect the evolution of life,” says Dr. Rowan Whittle, a palaeontologist at British Antarctic Survey and the study’s lead author.

“Our results show a clear link in the timing of animal recovery and the recovery of Earth systems.”

For over 320,000 years after the extinction, the team reports, the Antarctic sea floor was dominated by burrowing clams and snails. It took roughly one million years for the number of species to recover to pre-extinction levels.

“Our discovery shows the effects of the K-Pg extinction were truly global, and that even Antarctic ecosystems, where animals were adapted to environmental changes at high latitudes like seasonal changes in light and food supply, were affected for hundreds of thousands of years after the extinction event.”

Now, needless to say, the K-Pg extinction event was way more abrupt and dramatic than the shifts we’re causing in the Earth’s climate today. And this study focuses on its effects in Antarctica, not the Arctic. However, it does serve as an adequate case-study to see how long such ecosystems need to recover from major environmental shocks.

And climate change (plus human activity) is a major environmental shock. It’s much slower than an asteroid impact, sure, but it’s still happening unbelievably fast from a geological and evolutionary point of view. The first study we’ve discussed here shows that Arctic ecosystems do feel the heat, and feel it fast. Life here is very specialized to thrive in its frigid niche and if we let these ecosystems collapse, the same ancient dynamics that Whittle’s team found in the Antarctic will likely apply — our Arctic will only recover as the Earth’s systems recover.

The paper “Arctic climate shifts drive rapid ecosystem responses across the West Greenland landscape” has been published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

The paper “Nature and timing of biotic recovery in Antarctic benthic marine ecosystems following the Cretaceous–Palaeogene mass extinction” has been published in the journal Palaeontology.

New Antarctic Dinosaurs on Display at Field Museum

The world-renowned Field Museum of Chicago, Illinois has a new prehistoric creature display gracing their halls and galleries. The place has been decked out with fossil reconstructions and artistic representations of a variety of prehistoric animals. Most famous, of course, are those of the dinosaurs — and one of the newest additions is Antarctic Dinosaurs.

Around 195 to 235 million years ago (an era which encompasses the Triassic period as well as a small portion of the Jurassic period), Antarctica was quite different from its modern-day appearance. The Antarctic would have been closer to the equator, making for a lush habitat filled with “rhinoceros-sized dinosaurs and crocodile-sized amphibians,” says Kate Golembiewski, the public relations/science communications manager at the museum.

The exhibition includes hands-on interactive sections which can bring out the child in everyone. A significant portion of the exhibit is dedicated to the history of Antarctica in respect to man’s journeying there and learning how to survive the harsh, frigid conditions. Altogether, there are four dinosaur species appearing in the exhibit.

Glacialisaurus, a herbivorous dinosaur, is included as is a group of small sauropodomorphs which were ancestors of the massive long-necked sauropods. The titanosaur Maximo, which is also on display at the Field, is an example of the towering sauropods which are thought to have evolved along this lineage.

A life-like replica of the sauropodomorphs. Source: Of Intellect and Interest. Photo by John Tuttle.

Two of the dinosaur species on display were classified as sauropodomorphs. As yet, these new species have not been assigned personal scientific descriptions. The pride and joy of this entire display, however, is likely the Cryolophosaurus, a formidable predator of the area and era.

This carnivorous brute was a fierce hunter. The specimen present in Antarctic Dinosaurs measures 25 feet, which is not something you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Aside from the dinosaurs, there are other wondrous creatures which found their place in the exhibit.

It also features specimens of lichens, large amphibians, and even the skeleton of a sizeable aquatic carnivore known as Taniwhasaurus. It was a mosasaur, a relative to the giant marine animals depicted in the Jurassic World films, and is believed to have been able to reach lengths of close to 39 feet. It would have been a dangerous foe for any smaller swimmers of the Cretaceous period.

Altogether, the exhibit has something to offer everyone of every age, from child to adult, and of every interest, from history to paleontology, and is a great way to spend an afternoon or a day off.

Researcher captures stunning video of Antarctic minke whales

Regina Eisert is a research scientist who focuses on marine mammals and their physiology. Despite working in the Antarctic quite a bit, she didn’t think minke whales are particularly interesting — until she caught them on camera. Now, she thinks they’re beautiful.

Above and below: although they’re understudied, they’re majestic beneath the waves as well as on the surface.

Antarctic minke whales (Balaenoptera bonaerensis) don’t really get that much attention. They weren’t recognized as a distinct species until the 1990s and the whaling industry largely ignored them due to their small size and low oil yield. Of course, this worked out to their advantage, as they were among the few whale species who were able to maintain a large population up to the 21st century. But to this day, minke whales are grossly understudied.

Eisert herself wasn’t focused on them — she was in the Antarctic mostly to study orcas in the Ross Sea (a deep bay of the Southern Ocean in Antarctica). Along with her colleagues, Eisert planned to capture underwater footage for about two weeks, but they only filmed for about 90 minutes before they ran into technical problems. However, within those 90 minutes, they captured some remarkable takes — not with orcas, as they had planned, but rather with minke whales.

A minke whale (Balaenoptera bonaerensis), screenshot from the video. Image credits: Anthony Powell / Vimeo.

The conventional belief is that the minke whales dedicate most of their time to hunting krill, but as the team reports, there was no krill around. Instead, Eisert believes they were chasing small schools of fish. Due to the inaccessible habitat of the minke whales, studies have been few and far between, and as a result, we don’t even know exactly what they eat. Eisert and her colleagues hope to solve that question. They used a modified tranquilizer gun to gather a tiny amount of skin and blubber from whales and analyze it in the lab.

The biologists also found that when the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Polar Star had earlier cut a channel through the ice between two research stations, it also benefitted the whales: the path the icebreaker tore through now also as a highway for whales and other marine creatures.

After gaining a new appreciation for minke whales (and especially the individuality they exhibited), Eisert wants to learn more about them, despite the difficulty of studying them in such a remote area. Now, she will get the chance to do so, as part of a larger study on the ecosystem in the Ross Sea.

Scars left by glaciers show Antarctic ice retreat

The Antarctic seafloor shows evidence of how icebergs calved from glaciers and migrated thousands of years ago. A similar process might be happening today.

Scars left behind by glaciers in Pine Island Bay showcase Antarctica’s glacial retreat. Credit: Martin Jakobsson

The last glacial period, popularly known as the Ice Age, ended some 11,700 years ago. We call that the Holocene glacial retreat, because during the period, glaciers started to retreat in many parts of the world. This retreat altered landscapes in many ways, including “scarring” the land. Many landscapes, especially in mountainous areas across the world, exhibit glacial features — they were created or greatly influenced by retreating glaciers. A similar process happened in Antarctica, except that’s harder to see because the “scars” are underwater.

Think of them as plough lines. Just like the plough digs deep into the soil, the icebergs dug deep into the ground as they retreated. Analyzing them like a detective analyzes tire tracks, researchers can tell how these glaciers moved around.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, the British Antarctic Survey and Stockholm University imaged these seafloor features around Pine Island Bay. Pine Island Glacier is a large ice stream, the fastest melting glacier in Antarctica, responsible for about 25% of Antarctica’s ice loss. They found that as the seas warmed and ice melted at the end of the ice age, Pine Island Glacier retreated to a point where its grounding line (the point where it enters the ocean and starts to float) was perched at the end of a slope.

This position was highly unstable, facilitating the release of thousands of icebergs into Pine Island Bay, and causing the glacier to retreat rapidly until the grounding line stabilized. This process is called marine ice-cliff instability, and it’s associated with ice calving and the break-off of numerous icebergs.

Image credits: Martin Jakobsson.

Current data shows that a similar process is taking place today, with potentially worrying consequences.

“Today, the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers are grounded in a very precarious position, and major retreat may already be happening, caused primarily by warm waters melting from below the ice shelves that jut out from each glacier into the sea,” said Matthew Wise of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute, and the study’s first author.

“If we remove these buttressing ice shelves, unstable ice thicknesses would cause the grounded West Antarctic Ice Sheet to retreat rapidly again in the future. Since there are no potential restabilising points further upstream to stop any retreat from extending deep into the West Antarctic hinterland, this could cause sea-levels to rise faster than previously projected.”

If the ice does reach a similar point of instability, melting and calving will dramatically increase until a new balance is achieved.

Journal Reference: Matthew G. Wise et al —Evidence of marine ice-cliff instability in Pine Island Bay from iceberg-keel ploughmarks. DOI: 10.1038/nature24458

In 2015, record temperatures in Antarctica were 17.5°C (63.5°F). Yes, you read that right

The temperature was recorded in 2015, but it was just now released.

For a long time, it seemed that Antarctica was immune to global warming. How the times have changed! Image credits: NASA.

Is this the Antarctic or the Mediterranean?

Antarctica has been called “the last place on Earth.” People have made countless expeditions to explore the rugged terrain and ungodly temperatures. Some of them have not returned, falling to the might of the seemingly endless ice. But some days… you could enjoy the Antarctic Sun in a T-shirt, with temperatures more fit for Spain or southern Italy.

The reason why this is extremely surprising (if this needs any explaining) is that polar regions are cold — really cold. The South Pole’s annual mean temperature is -76F (-60C) in winter and -18 (-28.2C) in summer according to data at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Antarctica is usually not as cold as the South Pole, but on most days, temperatures range between -10C and -40C. But sometimes, things just go a bit crazy — especially when climate change kicks in.

Randy Cerveny, an Arizona State University professor of geographical science and urban planning who works with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said in a press release:

“The temperatures we announced today are the absolute limit to what we have measured in Antarctica […] The polar regions of our planet have been termed the ‘canary’ in our global environment[…]because of their sensitivity to climate changes, sometimes the first influences of changes in our global environment can be seen in the north and south polar regions.

Antarctic warming

Image credits: NASA / John Sonntag.

It’s not like this took us completely by surprise; climatologists have known that global warming greatly affected the Antarctic, but the sheer magnitude is stunning. Putting it all into perspective, much of the Antarctic is expected to melt by the end of the century — even under the most optimistic scenarios. It’s generally accepted that it’s no longer a question of whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt, it’s a question of when. We already see a massive crack (above), over 100 kilometers long and 100 meters wide (60 miles x 300 feet) with much more expected to come in the not-so-distant future. But seriously, this is pretty much the opposite of hell freezing over.

You might be wondering why this only emerged now, two years after it happened. WMO’s Archive of Weather and Climate Extremes is tasked with documenting the changes at the edges of the continent, but that’s no easy feat. Thing is, we don’t really know how common or uncommon this is in the Antarctic. Because the land is so inaccessible and funding is still scarce in many instances, we have few data points (read: scientific bases) scattered around the Antarctica.

“The Antarctic and the Arctic are poorly covered in terms of weather observations and forecasts, even though both play an important role in driving climate and ocean patterns and in sea level rise,” said Michael Sparrow, a polar expert with the World Climate Research Programme.

“Verification of maximum and minimum temperatures help us to build up a picture of the weather and climate in one of Earth’s final frontiers.”

Due to this, satellite-based observations such as NASA’s Earth Sciences program are vital and should be maintained. Hopefully, NASA will be allowed to continue doings its job.


British research vessel gets named “Boaty McBoatFace” following an online poll

The world has spoken and the vote has been cast: people want to name the new British Antarctic research ship “Boaty McBoatface”. Vox populi, vox Dei!

The boat that could become Boaty McBoatface.

It all started when the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) started a poll to name their $2.8 million research ship last month with its Twitter #nameourship campaign. The internet did what the internet does, and came up with names such as “Usain Boat,” “Boatamus Prime,” “It’s bloody cold here,” “Ice Ice Baby,” and “Notthetitanic,” but one really stood out; one name shone bright above them all: Boaty. BoatMcBoatface. The name gathered 78 percent of all votes, as clear a winner as any.

However, the final decision still lies in the hands of NERC and its chief executive, Duncan Wingham. They have been quite evasive about their decision, writing in a statement:

“NERC would like to thank everyone who has supported our campaign to name the UK’s next world-class polar research ship. NERC will now review all of the suggested names and the final decision for the name will be announced in due course.”

They have a long history of naming ships after explorers and naval officers, and this is probably what they were going for this time. We’ll just have to wait and see if they’ll follow what the people want, or if they’ll go for a more classical approach. But at this point, you just have to follow the pole – it’s too awesome to ignore.

The top ten suggestions are:

  • Boaty McBoatface – 124,109 votes

  • Poppy-Mai – 34,371 votes

  • Henry Worsley – 15,231 votes

  • It’s bloody cold here – 10,679 votes

  • David Attenborough – 10,284 votes

  • Usain Boat – 8,710 votes

  • Boatimus Prime – 8,365 votes

  • Katherine Giles – 7,567 votes

  • Catalina de Aragon – 6,826 votes

  • I like big boats & I cannot lie – 6,452 votes

The world’s largest canyon may lie under Antarctic Ice

British researchers have just made a stunning discovery – the biggest canyon may not be in the US or China but under Antarctic ice.

The startling discovery was made by researchers from the UK’s Durham and Newcastle universities and Imperial College London. Conducting an analysis of satellite data revealed what seems to be a 621 miles long canyon (1000 km), sometimes 3,280 feet deep (1000 meters).

Lead researcher, Dr Stewart Jamieson, from the Department of Geography at Durham University in the UK, said:

“Our analysis provides the first evidence that a huge canyon and a possible lake are present beneath the ice in Princess Elizabeth Land. It’s astonishing to think that such large features could have avoided detection for so long.

This is a region of the Earth that is bigger than the UK and yet we still know little about what lies beneath the ice. In fact, the bed of Antarctica is less well known than the surface of Mars. If we can gain better knowledge of the buried landscape we will be better equipped to understand how the ice sheet responds to changes in climate.”

Faint traces of the canyon were observed using satellite imagery. Some small sections were scanned with radio-echo sounding data, passing through the ice and revealing features of the sub-ice rock.

In a press release, Martin Siegert, a professor at the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London, called the discovery “tantalizing” but warned that it has to be confirmed.

“Geoscientists in Antarctica are carrying out experiments to confirm what we think we are seeing from the initial data, and we hope to announce our findings at a meeting of the ICECAP2 collaboration, at Imperial, later in 2016,” he said.

The team believes that the potential canyon was carved by water and the current ice was formed on top of it. Further analysis showed that the canyon may be connected to a previously undiscovered subglacial lake. If the data is correct, the lake could cover up to 1250km² – almost as big as London.

Co-Author Dr Neil Ross from Newcastle University in the UK, said:

“Antarctic scientists have long recognised that because the way ice flows, the landscape beneath the ice sheet was subtly reflected in the topography of the ice sheet surface. Despite this, these vast deep canyons and potential large lake had been overlooked entirely.

Our identification of this landscape has only been possible through the recent acquisition, compilation and open availability of satellite data by many different organisations (e.g. NASA, ESA and the US National Snow and Ice Data Center), to whom we are very grateful, and because of some serendipitous reconnaissance radio-echo sounding data acquired over the canyons by the ICECAP project during past Antarctic field seasons.”

Right now, the team will try to confirm their hypothesis through on-site geophysical methods. They have reportedly already started to survey the area.



Notebook Detailing Robert Scott’s Pioneering 1910-1913 Trek to the South Pole Discovered in Ice

A notebook that laid under the cover of Antarctic ice for the past 100 years was discovered by Newzealand’s Antarctic Heritage Trust. The notebook belonged to one of the members of Robert Scott’s scientific crew, an English explorer who raced against Roald Amundsen to be the first to reach the South Pole. While Scott eventually reached his destination, he was beaten to it by Amundsen who hung the Norwegian flag on the Antarctic Plateau (90° 0′ S), on the 14th of December 1911 or 34 days before Scott. If defeat at Amundsen’s hand wasn’t enough, Scott along with four other expedition members died of starvation and exhaustion after being trapped by bad weather.

An icy, century-old notebook


Credit: Antarctic Heritage Trust

The author of the notebook,  George Murray Levick, was not among those who perished with Scott, however. When Scott reached the Antarctic, he divided his Terra Nova expedition in two: one group would follow him to the South Pole, while the other journeyed along the coast and conducted scientific observations. A surgeon, photographer and zoologist, Levick scribbled his notebook with things like the date, subjects and exposure details for photographs he made during 1911 around Cape Adare.


Credit: Antarctic Heritage Trust


In fact, Levick almost met the same fate as Scott and his party. The six-man Northern Party was also trapped by a snow storm, preventing the expedition ship from retrieving them. The team, however, managed to survive after taking shelter in a snow cave and hunting seals and penguins. Levick returned home to England after the ill-fated expedition and died in 1956, yet his notebook remained buried under Antarctic ice for all this time.

“It’s an exciting find. The notebook is a missing part of the official expedition record,” said Nigel Watson, Antarctic Heritage Trust’s Executive Director. “After spending seven years conserving Scott’s last expedition building and collection, we are delighted to still be finding new artifacts.”

Frozen in time: the five members of Scott’s expedition who made it to the South Pole in 1912, but died on the return. From left: Oates, Bowers, Scott, Wilson and Evans. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

Frozen in time: the five members of Scott’s expedition who made it to the South Pole in 1912, but died on the return. From left: Oates, Bowers, Scott, Wilson and Evans. Photograph: Popperfoto/Getty Images

While most of Levick’s writings remain legible, the 104-year old notebook has certainly seen its share. The binding was dissolved and some stories are faded beyond recognition. After its discovery outside of a hut built by the Trust’s conservationist specialists when ice melted the previous year’s summer, the notebook has since been digitized. There’s no word yet when or if it will become public.

Antarctic Ice Collapse Could Devastate Global Food Supply

We’ve already written about the damage done to the Antarctic ice sheet, and how sadly, its collapse seems irreversible. A new study has analyzed some of the consequences of that collapse – it could devastate global food supply, drowning vast areas of crop lands across the Middle East and Asia.

Credit: janet747/flickr

The report urges the Obama administration (and other administrations as well, I might add) to step up research funding, especially in developing countries, to prepare for a projected gap in the future food supply. It also warns America that due to drought, rising temperatures and more aggressive pests, internal corn production may drop by 25 percent by 2100. The report is the first of a series which will look at how food security is threatened by climate change.

“That sea-level rise would take out half of Bangladesh and mostly wipe out productive rice regions in Vietnam,” Nelson told The Guardian. “It would have a major effect on Egyptian agricultural areas.”

The projected levels of sea rise due to melting ice pose even a larger threat to future food supply than the IPCC predicted.

“A sea level rise of 3 meters (10 feet) over the next 100 years is much more likely than the IPCC thought possible,” the report said.

In terms of absolute land loss, China would lose more than 3 million hectares (7.4 million acres). Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, and Myanmar could lose more than 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) each; and that’s just one of the metrics. The potential loss of viable crop land could spell disaster for the entire world, not only for those areas.

“Agriculture is a huge world-wide industry that requires stable weather, ‘or else,’ and we might just be entering the ‘or else’ period,” Dan Glickman, agriculture secretary under Bill Clinton and a co-chairman of the conference, told The Guardian.

The report claims we need to step up investing in research, and that we need to make more agricultural breakthroughs in order to keep up with the growing population of the planet, and the threats of global warming.

“The question is: ‘are we doing the right kind of research at our universities, at the department of agriculture, or in the private sector to deal with those changes? We need more and more applied research to help us move those numbers up. That is the real challenge for scientists.”


Scientific Reference: Advancing Global Food Supply in the Face of a Changing Climate


Various measurements have captured the West Antarctic ice sheet changing very rapidly in the region where it flows into the Amundsen Sea. Credit Landsat

West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapse is irreversible; to cause 10 feet sea level rise

Various measurements have captured the West Antarctic ice sheet changing very rapidly in the region where it flows into the Amundsen Sea. Credit Landsat

Various measurements have captured the West Antarctic ice sheet changing very rapidly in the region where it flows into the Amundsen Sea. Credit Landsat

The  West Antarctic Ice Sheet , a massive system of glaciers, is collapsing as a result of glacier melting (global warming). The process is most likely irreversible and cause a global sea lever rise of at least 10 feet, a pair of independent studies conclude.

A warmer planet gives way to rising oceans

Previously, the two-mile-thick (3.2 kilometers) glacier system was thought to last for at least a couple thousand years in the future, but new research reports faster melting times and more rapid displacement of ice into the ocean. Namely, NASA researchers found after shifting through 40 years worth of observational data that  six big glaciers in the Amundsen Sea “have passed the point of no return.”


The glaciers contain enough ice to raise global sea level by 4 feet (1.2 meters) and are melting faster than most scientists had expected, which will require adjusting estimates of sea-level rise. Their disappearance will most likely destabilize other sectors of the ice sheet, so the ultimate rise could be triple that.

“This retreat will have major implications for sea-level rise worldwide,” said Eric Rignot, a UC-Irvine Earth science professor and lead author of a study to be published in a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

Another study made by a separate team led by Ian Joughin of the University of Washington studied one of the most important glaciers, Thwaites, using sophisticated computer modeling. The findings, expected to be published on May 16 in the journal Science, suggests that the Thwaites Glacier, a relatively fast-moving part of the ice sheet, will likely melt away into the ocean within several centuries, enough by itself to raise sea levels 2 feet.

Icebergs that appear to have broken off Thwaites glacier spread across Pine Island Bay. PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA

Icebergs that appear to have broken off Thwaites glacier spread across Pine Island Bay. PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA

Both studies seem to be conclude what world famous glaciologist John H. Mercer of the Ohio State University predicted way back in 1978: the rapid human-driven release of greenhouse gases pose a great threat to West Antarctic ice sheet, which is particularly vulnerable to such interventions.

Yet, this will happen in hundreds of years

These news are extremely startling since they mean that we have to prepare for a worse sea level rise scenario than initially thought, which could displace hundreds of millions living on the world’s coastlines. You shouldn’t panic though. Collapse is a term that in our minds is associated with an event that will happen very soon in the near future. In fact, these glaciers will retreat in about two hundred years, although estimates are yet to be fully refined. In a geological time frame, however, this is equivalent to a very sudden, unnatural event indeed.

Another, separate study that studied West Antarctic ice melt was released on Monday and reached the same conclusion: the major glacial system in the region that was previously thought stable is collapsing.

“What we have shown is this glacier is really in the early stages of collapse,” says Joughin, lead author of a study published separately in the journal Science on Monday.

Richard Alley, a professor of Earth sciences at Penn State University in State College, Pennsylvania, who was not involved in either research project, says both are important. The data from Rignot’s group is consistent with the computer modeling by Joughin’s group, he says. Next, however, both works need to be confirmed by other independent models.

“But these results are sobering,” he says, “even the possibility that we have already committed to three-plus meters of sea-level rise from West Antarctica will be disquieting to many people, even if the rise waits centuries before arriving.”

It’s important to note that much of Antarctica’s ice sheet is in fact a system. As such, once the six glaciers near the coast melt, it is possible that the rest of the ice in West Antarctica could eventually follow like a domino string as a result of mechanical failure.

Joughin says that the collapse of the Thwaites glacier in particular could endanger much of the rest of the huge West Antarctic Ice Sheet, since the systems are connected.

“Imagine trying to take out part of a building and expecting the other half to keep on standing,” he says.

Antarctic ozone hole shows big improvement – not all good

The hole in the ozone layer is the second smallest in twenty years, data from NASA and NOAA shows, but it’s not all good news. In fact, it could signal things taking a turn for the worst.

Warmer air temperatures high above the Antarctic led to the hole shrinking, now covering an area of about 17.9 million square kilometers. The ozone layer protects all life on Earth, filtering 97–99% of the Sun’s harmful medium-frequency ultraviolet light. The ozone density also seems to be growing higher and higher, which is also caused by the warming of the area; if this is indeed the case, this improvement won’t last and things will get worse in the near future.

“The ozone hole mainly is caused by chlorine from human-produced chemicals, and these chlorine levels are still sizable in the Antarctic stratosphere,” says NASA atmospheric scientist Paul Newman. Natural fluctuations in weather patterns resulted in warmer stratospheric temperatures this year. These temperatures led to a smaller ozone hole.”

The hole in the ozone layer was first observed in the early 1980s, and it was caused by chlorine emissions created by human activity; chlorine can break down ozone molecules very quickly.

“It happened to be a bit warmer this year high in the atmosphere above Antarctica, and that meant we didn’t see quite as much ozone depletion as we saw last year, when it was colder,” said Jim Butler with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.

When the ozone layer hit its maximum, it was bigger than the US, Canada and Mexico combined.