Extreme Climate Science in Antarctica

The summer season in Antarctica has now officially begun and the Australian Antarctic Division is in the midst of coordinating the southward journey of around 500 people, including expedition scientists to investigate 80 different scientific projects.

These intrepid scientists will work on projects from far below the ice, to the unique upper atmosphere in conditions that can be life threatening – the lowest ever recorded temperature was -89.2 degrees Celsius in 1983.

This year, projects will vary from investigations into astronomical robotics to the impact of the calving of 78 km of the Mertz Glacier tongue on global ocean circulation, all in the name of understanding our complex global ecosystem.

One such unique project will explore the impact of the Black Saturday Australian bushfires of 2009 on the atmosphere above Antarctica to learn whether Antarctic ecosystems are more vulnerable than others, and whether bushfire plumes add to the depletion of the protective ozone layer.

Using high quality measurements collected by modern satellite and ground-based instruments, the team will study vertical and horizontal motions of the smoke plume, the chemical composition of this plume, and chemical reactions between various molecules in the plume and other atmospheric gases.

While many people may think Antarctic research focuses only on its environment and climate, groundbreaking research is also being conducted into human health and wellbeing.

While their main focus is on ensuring the immediate health and well being of people living on and visiting the stations, Antarctic doctors are also part of studies on the effect of the unique and extreme environment on the human body.

For example, recent research by Australian Antarctic doctors has shown that the lack of sunlight over the Antarctic winter can lead to vitamin D deficiency.  All Australian Antarctic expeditioners are now offered vitamin D supplements to help protect their bones.

One project this season, titled ‘The role of sleep and circadian phase on crew safety, performance and psychological health during long-term analog space missions’ will study the sleep patterns, health and brain function of researchers based in Antarctica.

It is hoped that the study will provide data necessary for the development of a program to monitor and improve astronaut’s health, safety and psychology during long-duration missions to space.

Antarctic science not only investigates some important processes that influence the world’s climate, such as ice melt, carbon dioxide absorption and deep ocean currents but also provides a history of our planet’s climate by analysing air-bubbles trapped in the Antarctic ice sheet.

Many projects this summer will explore the crucial history trapped in between the ice sheets of Antarctica while others will examine the current and potential future impacts of global warming and other human activities.

To learn more about Antarctic research being conducted this year, visit the Australian Antarctic Division website.