Study aid for Antarctic knowledge

A trust set up to advance understanding of the Antarctic has announced funding for researchers who are aiming to understand how a changing climate and increasing carbon dioxide levels could affect the frozen continent, the seas around it and its wildlife, and the ozone hole above it.

The research also tied in with the Government's Deep South national science challenge.

The panel which selected the challenges said the biggest impacts on New Zealand's climate were likely to come from ocean and climate systems strongly influenced by Antarctica via the Southern Ocean.

"Relatively subtle changes in ocean currents could have dramatic impacts on our climate and ability to farm and live as we currently do. Yet we have little understanding of the interactions from changes to the Antarctic such as ice melt raising sea levels and the impacts on ocean currents."

The first funding round from the New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute (NZARI), which was launched last August, aimed to fill in some of the gaps.

NZARI is providing $574,000, funded by support from the Robertson Foundation and Air New Zealand, to seven projects which have a total cost of about $1.5 million.

Among the issues being dealt with by the projects is polar amplification - processes in the climate system that amplify the amount of warming in high latitudes compared to the global average.

"It is of concern due to the effect of the warming on ice sheet stability and therefore global sea level, as well as carbon-cycle feedbacks such as those linked with permafrost thawing," Professor Tim Naish of the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University said.

"We will produce a state-of-play synthesis of the current understanding of past, present and future polar amplification and its potential consequences."

For another project, NZARI has brought together international experts in past climates to study environmental conditions in New Zealand's southern regions from a period in the past when CO2 concentrations were similar to those that will prevail in the next five years.

Rock and sediment cores from beneath the Southern Ocean will be examined to determine what impact increased CO2 levels had on Antarctica's ice sheets.

The ability of polar marine species to adapt to warmer and more acidic coastal seas will be studied, as will the food requirements of killer whales, Weddell seals and Adelie penguins to provide reference points for detecting future change and to identify the food resources critical to the predators.

NZARI said three research teams would travel to Antarctica in the coming summer for field observations and measurements supported by Antarctica New Zealand.

The remaining proposals would use a range of existing observations, remotely collected data and mathematical models as the basis for research.

The new funding would support New Zealand research teams from seven universities, three crown research institutes and two independent research organisations, and enable them to team up with international partners.