Antarctica, the least hospitable and most treacherous of the Earth’s seven continents, has had a bad year. First came the realization by scientists in June that undersea volcanoes were accelerating glacial melt in the western region. Now more research has revealed another threat to the continent’s western glaciers which is wind. More specifically this means strong westerly winds which may cause the overall sea level to rise one meter more than was previously predicted.
Scientists recently admitted that prior models had underestimated the disruptive effects of “westerly winds which could end up disturbing the “delicate” temperature balance between the western and eastern air currents which help to maintain the temperatures necessary to keep Antarctica’s glaciers from melting rapidly and causing sea levels to rise, threating coastal areas around the world.
Antarctica’s future is not looking very bright at the moment. NASA has called the rapid melting of the glaciers “irreversible,” giving the continent 400 to 500 years before the process is complete. According to their data, western glaciers are slowly sliding towards the ocean. This means that more and more ice is being placed in direct contact with the relatively warm water. Over time that water will dissolve those glaciers, which lack the “pinning points” which normally restrict glaciers from simply sliding off into the sea. Adding to this is of course the effect of the underwater volcanoes which are sending warm water up underneath the giant glaciers, thereby causing sub-glacial melt as well.
All of this comes on the heels of the numerous scientific discoveries from the 60 or so scientific bases currently operating there. For instance, in January an American team successfully drilled over 1 km down into a sub-glacial lake to study its properties for various scientific reasons, including its applicability to predictions regarding life on other planets. Ancient ice samples, taken from deep within Antartica’s glaciers, have also helped scientists understand how the Carbon cycle functions within a geological time frame.
Scientists are not the only ones who may lament these findings. In addition to being a hotspot for scientific research, the continent also become a tourism destination of sorts, with reports of at least 30,000 people coming to visit each year. For many individuals, the trip is somewhat obligatory, a chance to “check the seventh continent off their travel list” as one tourism company founder put it.
Unfortunately such tourism may soon pose yet another threat to the rapidly melting glaciers of Antarctica. According to scientists, areas not covered by ice contain very simple ecosystems, which have been invaded by species from other lands on the bodies and in the boats of tourists and the companies that bring them to the delicate frozen continent.
Antarctica faces many new threats. Its glaciers are being dissolved by an alliance between the sun and the dark waters which have for so long been covered by the highly reflective ice and also the warm currents spouted from the sea floor by volcanic vents which are melting the Antarctic glaciers from the inside.
There is also the newest threat, one overlooked by scientists but now officially recognized as yet another cause for alarm: the winds. Even if the glaciers and ice were not under threat, the delicate ecosystems which have managed to survive on that most inhospitable of continents is definitely being damaged by the ever growing tourism industry, which is likely to only grow in size as the continent begins to diminish. With all this, it is easy to see why Antarctica is having a very bad year so far.
By Andrew Waddell
Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center