Despite being the fifth largest continent, Antarctica has remained the most distant and remote place on our planet. It was the last region to be discovered by a Russian expedition in 1820 and remained largely untouched for the rest of that century.
This trend began to change with initial expeditions by the likes of Scott and Shackleton, leading the way for the research facilities there today, which have carried out significant scientific studies. These studies have developed our understanding of this vast unknown and it is this that has led to the continent’s increased presence in international debate, predominantly over climate change.
In 2014, NASA released evidence showing several major ice streams in Antarctica to be irreversibly in retreat. The total disappearance of these streams would lead to sea levels rising by an average of 1.5mtr. This seemingly permanent decline is due to a rise in global temperatures that has been attributed to human emissions of greenhouse gases. Studies suggest that a 2°C rise in global temperatures would lock the Earth into a cycle of perpetually rising sea levels and global temperature.
Antarctica alone has the ability to cause such a global disaster for two main reasons. Firstly, the three ice sheets that cover the continent contain around 70% of our planet’s fresh water and secondly, polar surface temperature is projected to rise twice as fast as the global average due to a process called polar amplification. These, coupled with that the fact that 93% of anthropogenic global warming is absorbed by the ocean, mean that the water currently contained above sea-level in Antarctica will likely soon enter an exponential cycle of rising temperatures and melting ice that lead to rising sea levels.
Applicants for Earth Sciences can consider the effects that rising sea levels would have on weather conditions and Earth’s climate. They can also research into the science behind polar amplification.