UNFROZEN IN TIME

There's a glacier in Antarctica so immense that, if it melted, would raise sea levels globally by 3.5 metres.

It's melting. Right now.

"The facts around climate change are undeniable. It's happening," Australian glaciologist Ben Galton-Fenzi told The Huffington Post Australia. "The research we do now isn't about trying to convince ourselves it's real, because it's irrefutable. What we're trying to do is understand what the response time of the system is going to be into the future, so we can adapt to it."

The Totten glacier is the biggest in east Antarctica. The glacier itself is around 120 kilometres long, 30 kilometres wide and drains some 538,000 square kilometres of the continent. That's an area bigger than California. The ice is kilometres thick, but it's melting at 70 metres a year in some spots. A study released in December reported warmer water was melting the Totten ice from below.

Galton-Fenzi and his small team will spend the next few months trying to work out exactly how fast the glacier is melting, gathering data to build better models to predict melt rates and how that will affect sea levels.

"The majority of the heat that has gone into the global climate system has gone into the ocean, about 90 percent over the last few decades of measurements," he said. "The hypothesis is ocean temperatures around Antarctica will keep warming and drive the melting of the glaciers. If the glaciers flow faster, sea levels will rise, and that has profound implications for global civilisation."

The glaciologist is tall and broad, good-natured and warm with a cheeky grin. But when we return to the portent of climate change, the principal research topic being undertaken at Casey station, the largest of Australia's Antarctic installations, his joviality melts away.

"I have two children, I worry about their future. What sort of world are they going to have to inherit?" he says, fiddling with a piece of research equipment, one of many complicated gizmos he shows us inside one of Casey's massive storage sheds. "I see my job here as trying to do a better job of that, especially when they get old enough to have kids and I have grandchildren. The world we work on today is the world they inherit tomorrow."

Around 4000 kilometres due south of Perth, on the Bailey peninsula of the frozen continent, Casey is essentially a small town of around 100 hardy expeditioners during the summer months.

There are carpenters and plumbers, mechanics and cooks, doctors and electricians and more to keep the station running and operational.

But Casey is a research station. It's all about the science, and especially climate science.

"Climate change is a reality. There's the whole debate around how we deal with it, and the work we do in Antarctica is influencing our ability to look forward and genuinely understand how much things are going to change," Australian Antarctic Division director, Dr Nick Gales told HuffPost Australia from Hobart, the base of operations for the AAD.

"It is alarming. There is huge change going on there. The more we learn, the more we see change happening at rates faster than we predicted. It's fundamentally important to support the science, communicate the science really well, and make sure the policy makers are aware of the science so they can take account of that in forming mitigation and adaptation strategies around the world."


The AAD is the government body that administers Australian operations in Antarctica, from delivering workers and equipment to the continent, to selecting the research applications to be undertaken each season, to making sure the kitchen at Casey is well stocked with chocolate.

"When we started doing science in Antarctica, it was important and interesting because we were learning about things we simply didn't know about."

"Nowadays, the science is really critically important to what we do in the future."

It's critical to our wellbeing and our ability to understand what's coming, and adapt and mitigate the effects. What about the droughts? Are they going to become more regular? What will happen to our low-lying areas and Pacific islands in relation to sea level rise? The science we do is critical for informing that."


This season, the AAD will support almost 100 projects in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. More than 500 expeditioners will make their way down each year for major "season-defining" projects such as Galton-Fenzi's Totten glacier work, and smaller-scale operations. Gales said around two-thirds of the Australian-led research in Antarctica is related to climate science.

It is a continent almost entirely covered by ice, the largest ice sheet in the world and the planet's largest single reserve of fresh water. It's almost entirely untouched by humans, uninhabited but for the research teams (and a whole lot of amazing animal life, as we soon discovered); a continent literally devoted to science.

The 1959 Antarctic treaty, signed by the 12 countries which had been active in Antarctica -- Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, the United Kingdom and United States -- agreed to set aside territorial claims and enshrine the continent as a place for peace, science and international collaboration. Scientists work together, sharing resources, manpower and findings, for the good of humanity under this treaty, which states:

- Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only (Art. I)
- Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end … shall continue (Art. II).
- Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available (Art. III).

"It's unique. It's extraordinary that, in a place like that, the world can agree to set aside differences and focus on those really important issues," Gales said.

Read the entire article at HuffingtonPost.com