Antarctica's frozen sea isolates research stations

Ships such as the Akademik Shokalskiy are unable to get near the research stations in Antarctica. (Andrew Peacock, Reuters)

Ships such as the Akademik Shokalskiy are unable to get near the research stations in Antarctica. (Andrew Peacock, Reuters)

Sea ice around Antarctica is at record levels for May, part of a trend of increasing ice around the frozen continent making it harder to resupply and refuel research stations.

More than 50 scientists gathered in Hobart, Tasmania, this week for a series of workshops on techniques to more accurately forecast sea ice levels in the polar region, aiming to save millions of dollars in shipping costs.

They hope to avoid a repeat of the problems suffered by the Akademik Shokalskiy, the research vessel caught in a sudden freeze in December 2013.

Rod Wooding, from the Australian Antarctic Division, said last year ships “couldn’t get anywhere near” the Australian research site, Mawson station, requiring a year’s supplies and fuel to be flown in by helicopter.

“[That] is inadequate for the long-term sustainability of the station,” he said. “Other national programmes have had similar problems, the French in particular, the Japanese also.” 

Scientists were initially puzzled by increasing sea ice around the continent, which reached record levels in September 2014. They’ve concluded it is “largely driven by changes in wind”, said Tony Worby, chief executive of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre. 

“Those changes of wind are driven by the depletion of ozone in the stratosphere and the increasing greenhouse gas in the atmosphere.”

The El Niño phenomenon “drives changes in pressure, which drives changes in wind, which drives changes in sea ice”, he said.

Antarctica is surrounded by ocean, leaving sea ice “completely free to expand”, in contrast to the Arctic region, which is surrounded by Russia, Greenland and northern Canada.

Australia is tendering to replace its icebreaking vessel, the 25-year-old Aurora Australis. Worby said more accurate forecasts would help to understand what level of “ice-breaking capability” would be needed in the future.

“It’s quite hard to forecast but whatever effort we put into improving our ability to forecast sea ice will ultimately pay dividends in terms of savings for national programmes,” he said. – © Guardian News & Media 2015



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