Most homebuyers don’t think about Antarctica when buying beachfront property. But maybe they should. The 5.4 million-square-mile Antarctic ice sheet is melting, and scientists estimate that if it disappeared completely, sea level would rise by 200 feet. While no one expects complete melting to happen in the immediate future, competing pressures are increasing the rate of ice melt, whose impacts will be felt in varying ways around the globe – and could even affect that beachfront buy sooner rather than later. In addition to Antarctica’s globally significant role in sea level rise, ocean and atmospheric circulation, and carbon cycling, it has a unique ecosystem that offers myriad opportunities for scientific research. Last week, at a congressional briefing hosted by Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO), scientists discussed the changing Antarctic and research opportunities in light of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s strategic vision for NSF-supported research in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean over the next ten years.
Dr. Robin Bell (Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Research Professor, LDEO, Columbia University and Co-Chair, Committee on the Development of a Strategic Vision for the U.S. Antarctic Program) described how the Antarctic ice sheet is already losing mass and that this rate of reduction is increasing. According to Dr. Radley Horton (Associate Research Scientist, Center for Climate Systems Research, Columbia University), the rate of acceleration of sea level rise (as a result of this ice melt) is uncertain and won’t have a uniform effect across the globe. However, by 2100, an estimated $238-$597 billion worth of property will be below the sea level nationwide. Dr. Hugh Ducklow (Professor, Earth and Environmental Sciences, LDEO, Columbia University) explained that the decline of available sea ice disrupts food webs, resulting in “potential dire consequences for upper levels of the food chain.” For example, krill are disappearing as their food source is reduced due to the loss of sea ice, which in turn impacts larger organisms, like penguins and whales, that feed on krill.
Panelists stressed the importance of increased research and investment in this polar region. Dr. Terry Wilson (Professor, School of Earth Sciences, The Ohio State University and Lead Delegate for U.S. Representation to the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine) stated that large-scale, collaborative efforts in the international science community allow ongoing research to be conducted “beyond the scope of individual nations.” COL President Retired U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Jon White asked if the lack of U.S. icebreakers indicates that the future of Antarctic research is in jeopardy. Dr. Ducklow explained that for the U.S. to remain the leader in Antarctic research, icebreaking capabilities need to be addressed — the U.S. only has one functioning heavy icebreaker, compared to Russia’s forty. According to Dr. Wilson, with the challenges outlined and the strategic vision in place, the U.S. now needs to lead the effort to advance research in this remote area.