Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and highest continent on Earth. What makes the frozen continent so valuable to scientists and vulnerable to human contact?
Every year, scientists and support staff from around the world travel to this extreme environment to take part in extensive research programmes. These projects often extend over several seasons and involve scientists from a range of countries and disciplines: biologists, chemists, physicists and geologists often work as part of a team. Teams usually share equipment, programme costs and expertise, and develop extensive linkages as a result of this collaboration. New technologies such as satellite links and data loggers allow researchers to set up equipment in the field during the summer, and collect and analyse information throughout the year.
The harsh terrestrial environment places severe demands on Antarctica’s land plants and animals. Air temperatures are usually well below freezing, and strong winds exaggerate the effects of the cold; there is total darkness for three months during winter, while the summer sees 24-hour sunshine; and fresh water is provided only by snow melt. In contrast, the nutrient-rich surrounding oceans are rich in plant and animal life. But whether they live in the seas or on land, all Antarctic organisms have physical, physiological and behavioural adaptations that allow them to survive in this extreme environment.
Our interest in Antarctica was initially based on exploration and the search for resources. But today’s scientists have much broader interests:
- Antarctica’s geological history and the forces that have shaped it
- How astronomical cycles have warmed and cooled our planet
- Its organisms (such as seals, penguins and whales) and ecosystems (marine and terrestrial) and their adaptations for extreme environments
- Data related to weather, climate change and ozone depletion
- Increasingly, the environmental management, protection and conservation of this unique continent, including historic huts.
Find out more about these New Zealand scientists who work in Antarctica.
- Dr Megan Balks from the University of Waikato is interested in soils in Antarctica.
- Dr Katja Riedel is a NIWA research scientist interested in ice cores and atmospheric chemistry.
- Dr Mike Williams from NIWA, investigates icebergs and ocean circulation around Antarctica and the affects this has on climate.
- Student Calum Ninnes spent 8 weeks looking at how humans were affecting penguins.
It is very important to keep Antarctica as pristine as possible so all impacts from human presence have to be kept to an absolute minimum, this includes human wastes. All scientists when they leave the field take all their wastes with them to prevent any contamination of the environment.
Take up the challenge
Hands-on student activities center around the properties of seawater, density, fresh water versus salt water and water temperature. The activities are supported by the science articles Glaciers, Icebergs and glaciation, Water and ice and Water density.
The literacy activity Animal and plant adaptations explores life in cold, dry climates and includes the opportunity to design a unique organism capable of living in these conditions.
The Icy ecosystems – question bank provides an initial list of questions about Antarctica, its icy ecosystem and places where their answers can be found. The questions support an inquiry approach.
For explanations of key concepts, see Icy ecosystems – key terms.
Explore the timeline to see look at some of the key dates in the early discoveries of Antarctica.
Listen to Rob DeConta talk about how the latest climate models confirm the melting of the West Antarctic glaciers and his prediction that Antarctica’s ice sheets could contribute more than a meter of sea-level rise by the end of the century