We're off to Antarctica!
Never has a continent been more misunderstood. Antarctica is on a scale hard to grasp: at over fourteen million square kilometres, it is second only to Russia in coverage of the Earth’s surface and bigger than all the countries of Europe combined. It is the world’s highest continent, with an average altitude of 2300 metres. It contains more than seventy per cent of the world’s freshwater, locked up as thirty million cubic kilometres of snow and ice—which, if it melted, would raise the planet’s seas by an estimated sixty-five metres, easily flooding the likes of Sydney, London and New York. The bitterly cold air on its upper surface contains virtually no moisture, making the Antarctic interior the world’s largest desert, while the rocks that make up the rest of the continent span almost the entire age of the Earth. The wildlife along its fringes is some of the most diverse on the planet.
And yet the Antarctic remains one of the last great unexplored regions on our planet. In spite of over a century of discovery – including aerial and satellite surveys – remarkably little of this great continent has been explored on the ground. The need is urgent. The pristine southern polar region is uniquely placed to monitor the health of our planet.
This year Chris Fogwill and I are extremely fortunate to be returning to the Antarctic and following up on an idea that that has excited us for some time. Today, a high-pressure system sits over the Antarctic continent, fed by air flowing south from warmer climes in the upper atmosphere. We know that by the time this air reaches the southern continent it has been intensely chilled, falling to temperatures below -80°C, and sinks. This cold air—katabatic, or downhill, wind—periodically pours off the central plateau towards the coast, like air spilling out of an open refrigerator door. These high winds typically average tens of kilometres per hour and scour the surface of snow. These high winds work in our favour. The winds are so fast and dry, the ice at the surface is removed by a process known as sublimation, drawing ancient, compressed snowfall up from down below to form blue ice areas. The practical upshot is this process exposes a wonderfully accessible, detailed record of past climate change preserved in millennia-old ice that allows you to literally walk back through time.
Normally you’ll find Chris and I in balmy Sydney at the University of New South Wales, but thanks to the success of our last two seasons in Antarctica and support from Google, the Australian Research Council and Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions, we will be returning to the Patriot Hills, an area where temperatures should be around -20˚C. Instead of coring for past climate, we'll be working across the blue ice surface (and against the elements!) to collect precious surface samples. The idea is this will produce the first detailed climate reconstruction for the region over the last twenty thousand years. By extending ‘historical’ records of the last few decades, we hope we’ll gain a better understanding of how Antarctic ice sheets respond to past and future change. At least that’s the plan...
Thanks to the wonderful folks at Google you’ll be able to join us in the field. We will be hosting two Hangouts on Air on Google+ as +Intrepid Science ; one before and one after our sojourn on the ice. While in the Antarctic, we will also be sending back daily movies and slideshows on the Chris Turney - Intrepid Science Channel (hosted by YouTube) and Twitter feeds on @ProfChrisTurney. For more details, go to my website www.christurney.com. If you’re interested in learning more of our earlier work in Antarctica, check out my new book 1912: The Year The World Discovered Antarctica and the blog entries for the January 2011 and January 2012 expeditions.