An expert warns that Australia is not ready for the economic impact of changes in Antarctic ice.
An esteemed researcher of Antarctica has called on the Albanese administration to closely monitor sudden transformations occurring in the southern continent. They caution that these changes will have an impact on Australians in ways that are not fully comprehended, and that there is a severe lack of funding for researching them.
Professor Matt King, the leader of the Australian Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science, expressed his dismay at the lack of understanding surrounding the effects of recent changes in the Antarctic region. These changes include a significant decrease in floating sea ice, the rapid melting of massive ice sheets, and the weakening of the Southern Ocean overturning circulation.
The King predicted that they would have varying impacts on temperature and rainfall in Australia, potentially altering communities and the sustainability of agricultural industries. This may also accelerate the rise of sea levels along the coast.
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According to him, Australia allocates only tens of millions of dollars annually for activities in Antarctica, with a large portion going towards the construction and upkeep of ships and stations rather than research. The cost of an Antarctic cargo ship can exceed $40 million.
King stated that the amount of funding allocated was comparatively small when considering the $680 billion federal budget and did not adequately represent the significance of the continent.
“We require a leader in the cabinet who can propel a long-term agenda in the Antarctic,” stated King. “Maybe one of the flaws is that Antarctica is viewed solely as an environmental issue, when in fact it is a matter that concerns all sectors of the government.”
The speaker stated that the current structure of the Australian and global economies relies on Antarctica remaining unchanged. However, there is a shift happening where Antarctica will no longer be in its current state.
The recent developments in the Antarctic area have caused significant worries about its current well-being and have aligned with proof that long-term changes related to the climate emergency are occurring earlier than previously anticipated.
The amount of sea ice in the ocean near the continent drastically decreased for six consecutive months, reaching a level that has never been seen on satellite recordings. This had a significant effect, as evidenced by a scientific study which concluded that a decline in 2022 resulted in a devastating loss of emperor penguin chicks.
Two different studies have shown that the circulation of the Southern Ocean has slowed by approximately 30% since the 1990s. If greenhouse gas emissions are not significantly decreased, this slowdown could potentially worsen by the middle of the century due to meltwater from the continent’s ice sheets. This could have a domino effect, leading to rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, and a decline in vital nutrients for marine life. In the past, changes in ocean circulation have taken over 1,000 years to occur. However, these studies suggest that in this instance, these changes could happen within a few decades, having sudden and significant impacts on lives and livelihoods.
Previous studies from last year indicated that the rapid melting of ice shelves in the Amundsen Sea located in western Antarctica was inevitable and would continue for the remainder of the century, regardless of efforts to reduce emissions.
According to King, researchers examining these transformations and their effects are depending on scientific models that are not fully accurate for some areas of western Antarctica, and even less so for the remaining regions of the continent.
There is a significant amount of unknown information that we are currently unaware of. According to the speaker, we lack knowledge about the bedrock beneath the ice, which plays a crucial role in determining the retreat of the ice and its consequences. Additionally, there is limited data available about the continental shelf.
Last week, the Australian Antarctic Division revealed that the seabed of the Southern Ocean is not well understood. This was demonstrated when crew members on a resupply trip discovered a 2km deep and 46km long canyon near Casey station, while they were delayed due to severe weather conditions.
According to Ben Galton-Fenzi, a glaciologist at the Australian Antarctic Division, the finding is significant; however, there are other crucial seabed regions that scientists could have examined if there was funding for a specialized research expedition.
According to King, Australia now has the RSV Nuyina, a ship designed for both research and supply purposes in icy regions. However, in order to conduct long-term research, the country will require more icebreakers or autonomous robotic ships.
He stated that a scheduled research trip to the boundary between open sea and floating ice, known as the marginal ice zone, was cancelled due to the Nuyina not being prepared on schedule. The trip has yet to be rescheduled.
According to King, there is evidence that the decrease of sea ice is affecting Australian weather patterns. A study has shown that it may result in a dry climate in New South Wales and potentially lead to more rain in northern Western Australia. However, scientists are unable to predict exactly how these changes will impact rainfall patterns in the next ten years.
According to him, the consequences of melting glaciers and a possible decrease in the absorption of carbon dioxide by the Southern Ocean are significant risks that are not being given enough attention. Studies conducted by King suggest that Antarctic glaciers have been losing an average of 150 billion tonnes of ice per year, equivalent to 17 million tonnes every hour, in the last 20 years.
A similar problem has been observed in the northern hemisphere. Recent studies suggest that the Greenland ice sheet is melting at a rate of 30m tonnes per hour, which is 20% higher than previous estimates.