[the following is from a paper I wrote for an Antarctic course last spring]

“Airborne platforms…are ideal for ice-shelf cavity exploration due to their…operational insensitivity to crevasses (compared to surface-based data acquisition) …” (Southern Ocean Observing System). This is the scientific way of explaining that whereas people can fall into crevasses, airplanes generally do not. The challenge for scientists has always been one of translation. How to take meaning-laden, complex words and concepts and, without losing the gist, set them in a context for public consumption and discussion. Newton had it easy. Although the inspiration was brilliant, his expository was simple. The apple fell from the tree.


The Crossing of Antartica (Thames & Hudson)/George Lowe, Huw Lewis Jones, the 1957/58 Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition.

Modern scientists have a harder challenge. Not only is the science more complex and difficult to understand, but the reality television mentality of many politicians and policy makers has promoted a culture that embraces ignorance. Witness Anderson Cooper’s comment to Donald Trump at a recent “debate” – “that’s the argument of a five year-old.” Such is the milieu in which the Challenge is set.

New Zealand is getting it right with its Deep South Challenge. Accepting that climate changes, the idea is to “adapt, manage risk and thrive in a changing climate.” To do so, and arrive at correct and economically viable decisions, a multi-disciplinary approach involving a positive feedback loop consisting of the public, educators, scientists and policy makers helps inform the science. For instance, what do civil engineers and architects need to know about extreme weather events when planning infrastructure; how do farmers manage crops in the face of more frequent droughts; how should tax and insurance policies be designed to benefit those communities most at risk to sea level rise so that the larger public good is not abused? This is the ground-truthing of public policy – using societal concerns and issues to prove the value of the science.

The Deep South Challenge has developed various engagement strategies to ensure that the science done in the Antarctic “…remains focused on and directed by societal needs.” Through lectures, seminars, briefing sessions and technical workshops, the Challenge responds “…to the most important national-scale issues.” Open and continuous communication is achieved by the use of online media, science festivals and public workshops among other tools. In this way, scientific priorities and research programs are established which lead back to the ground, or ice, in Antarctica.


Antarctic sea ice. NASA.

Data and observations gathered on and around the continent help in the development of an earth system model which allows better management of climate risks. Climate observations in Antarctica help improve atmospheric models which in turn provide more reliable and precise weather forecasting. This allows the constituents of the Challenge to more effectively determine and plan for the impact of climate change on the economy and infrastructure. For instance, infrastructure decisions are improved by adding the stressors and risks associated with climate change to existing tectonic based models. It is well enough to understand what happens when the earth shakes, but you also need to know what energetic storms laden with heavy rain, wind, snowfall and resultant flooding can do to the roads.

Extreme weather events can be seen as beginning in Antarctica. In situ work on ice-shelf cavities, as an example, feed directly back into weather models and test the validity and predictive value of the computer programs. Ice sheets lose mass at their boundaries which are generally where ice meets water along the leading edge and underneath the sheet itself – the cavity. As warm water enters the cavity, the sheets thin and are more vulnerable to fracture. But unlike a dental cavity, you can’t X-ray an ice sheet cavity. Gravitational measurements taken from aircraft, and ship based radio echo sounding and magnetic data help to map the relevant geography. This complex interaction of water and ice is the beginning of a deep river that cascades off the continental shelf and drives global ocean currents. So it is important to understand this interaction and to have models that predict what is observed on the ice.

Models must also explain the apparent inconsistencies that are so often picked up and paraded in public by politicians and talk show hosts. If global warming exists, why has the extent of winter sea ice around Antarctica been increasing? Recent extreme winters on the east coast of the United States have been used by politicians as evidence that global warming does not exist, and a significant portion of the population follows along.

There was a brief time when science captured the imagination of the world. From that moment when man walked on the moon, an entire generation was motivated to achieve the astounding. The benefits of the science, research and education that flowed from the Apollo missions can still be seen today in medicine, communications and computer and earth sciences. Because of its global impact, the next wave of imagination can be stimulated by Antarctic science.


Water circulation – Antarctica.