Daily routines #3: science

5th February 2013

Over the month we have been blogging from HMS Protector, we have purposefully tried to keep our posts light-hearted and focussed on the more day to day aspects of a fieldwork trip such as this to give you loyal readers a tangible flavour of the trip.  But as this will be our final post from the field, it might be worthwhile to refresh your minds about why exactly we have come all this way.

 Whilst it might have sounded like our time away has been all fun and games (and eating) we have of course been quietly beavering away on various aspects of the project.  These range from more practical issues such as sorting and preparing all the field kit to ensure that our limited time in the field was a success, to more academic pursuits such as writing a journal paper based on some early results that we already have from a moss bank even further south than Green Island.

 What it all boils down to is climate change.  Temperature data recorded at bases up and down the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula shows that it is one of the most rapidly warming parts of the planet, with temperature rises of as much as 3°C over the past 50 years.  The effects of this warming have been widespread; collapse of major ice shelves, retreat and acceleration of glaciers and an increased contribution to sea level rise.

If the warming continues, these impacts can only be expected to get worse.

The causes of this warming are complicated and still not fully understood, but relate to changing patterns of atmospheric pressure, increasing strength of the prevailing westerly winds and the extent of sea ice.  Ultimately, these are driven by ozone depletion, increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and volcanic activity, with the two former being more important.

Whilst more is understood about these very recent and current changes, much less is known about how climate has changed in the region in the longer-term past, over the last few thousand years.  That is where we come in.  The work we will do in the lab of over the coming years on the cores we have collected (from Green Island this year and other sites last year) will produce ‘proxy’ data that tell us about climate. 

Here are the three key questions (known as hypotheses in science-speak) we are asking during this project:

1.    Is the recent temperature rise unprecedented over the past few thousand years?

2.    Is the spatial pattern of change over the Antarctic Peninsula region the same now as it was in the past? (hence the need for lots of sites strung out on a north – south transect)

3.    Are plants responding to the recent warming by increased growth rates and altered seasonal growth patterns?

With the sites that were visited in 2012, there was one big hole in our transect and that was Green Island.  As you know by now, we successfully plugged that hole a couple of weeks ago, so it is now full steam ahead with the hard grind of lab work and data analysis that will eventually, we hope, provide us with answers to our questions.

 We are now only a few hundred miles from where we will fly back to the UK. The sea and ship are now both calm but we had some distinctly bumpy days coming over Drake’s Passage and further north.  With my newly acquired sea legs and several doses of sea-sickness tablets I was able to avoid a repeat of the first Drake’s Passage crossing (see earlier blog!) but was still laid up for a few days feeling decidedly groggy.

As we approach the end, it is natural to reflect on what has gone before.  I won’t mince my words; at times it has been exceedingly difficult for us both to be away from home and our loved ones for such a long period of time. Given the last four or five days I am also really looking forward to being on solid, dry land again too!  But also, it has been a privilege to visit such a beautiful, vast, imposing and yet fragile place.  Whilst Jessica was also on last year’s field trip, it has been very useful for me to understand first hand the sites I have been working on for the past six months and will be for the next two years.  Our work is by its very nature, somewhat destructive (though of course we do everything in our power to minimise this) and there are now quite a few holey moss banks dotted around the Antarctic Peninsula.  It is only fair to them that we now work hard to extract the maximum amount of scientific gain from our precious cores as possible.

As I said above, this will be our final blog from the field.  We’ll continue to post stories throughout duration of the project on various aspects of our lives as researchers, but these will be less frequent.  Thank you so much for reading our blogs over the past month and please keep checking back or get in touch if there is anything you would like to ask.  Our project website, if you haven’t seen it already is http://geography.exeter.ac.uk/antarctica


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