Antarctic monitoring call

Last updated 05:00 22/02/2014

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As Conservation Minister Nick Smith and a team of scientists prepare to embark on a two-week voyage around New Zealand’s subantarctic islands, a leading Antarctic researcher is calling for more use of them to monitor climate change.

The inhospitable islands, several hundred kilometres south of Bluff, are among the most scientifically important areas in the world, but are chronically under-studied, Professor Gary Wilson, from the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute, said.

They have been identified as one of the world’s best vantage points for picking up the earliest indicators of climate change, yet little is being done to take advantage of that.

“If you’re going to monitor for change, which we’re not really doing but we blimmin’ should be doing, that’s the place to go and do it,” Professor Wilson said.

Straddling the boundary between the frigid waters of the Antarctic circumpolar current and the warmer water flowing from the north, the islands were “right in the middle of the action,” he said.

These currents create New Zealand’s climate. The boundary was sensitive to any changes, which can be tracked.

The flora and fauna on the islands is also thought to be highly susceptible to any changes in the environment and could forewarn of changing conditions, he said.

Understanding what was happening, and being warned of any changes, would help protect the Kiwi economy, Professor Wilson, who has just returned from the islands, said.

The economy was so reliant on the natural environment that understanding the impact of the changing climate – man-made or not – meant the country could better prepare for its consequences.

“We need to know what the change involves and what it’s going to impact in terms of the climate, in terms of the oceanographic system, in terms of sea level rise for New Zealand.”

With the cost of travelling to the islands limiting the science carried out there, the institute wants to establish a research base at the Auckland Islands – 465km south of New Zealand - and wants support from the Government to do so.

There are hopes the base, which will cost $1 million to build and $500,000 a year to run, will be built next summer.

Understanding the role that Antarctica and the Southern Ocean play on New Zealand’s climate and economy has been prioritised by the Government through its National Science Challenge programme and Professor Wilson wants the Government to back the base.

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“For this part of the world we’re doing more than we’ve ever done before but it’s not enough. We’ve got a big job ahead of us and it’s really going to be hard work.”

The voyage accompanied by Dr Smith leaves today to visit the Bounty, Antipodes, Campbell, Auckland and Snares Islands.

The islands are a World Heritage Site.

"They are conservation treasures with unique species of penguins, albatross and sea lions, and we have a global responsibility for their protection,'' Dr Smith said.

He will launch a new pest control programme, formally open the three newly-created subantarctic marine reserves, investigate responses to the declining sea lion population and inspect possible sites for a new climate change research station.

- Fairfax Media

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