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Why is Antarctica so important for science?

Antarctica: a continent for science

Antarctica is a continent for science. Not owned by any one country (the only place on Earth that can claim that), it is nevertheless the home of over 70 scientific bases (representing 30 countries) which can justify the difficult logistics and expense of supporting human beings in an unpopulated wilderness. Here are some of the reasons why.

It contains, in solid form, over 90% of the world's fresh water. It thus plays an important role in the Earth's hydrological cycle. Unlike the Arctic, Antarctic ice is grounded meaning it is not already displacing its own weight in sea water. That is why the melting of Arctic ice will not change sea level, but the melting of Antarctic ice would. this places a great importance on understanding Antarctic ice processes. this permanent accumulation of ice means it lends itself to ice coring to, in effect, sample past climate compositions. this record goes back 800,000 years and has enabled us to extend back our historical dataset of the Earth's past climate record. (Ice coring to establish past climate also takes place in Greenland because it is cheaper to operate there and the resolution, i.e. how small a time period you can resolve, is greater as it has greater snowfall per year than Antarctica, but it only allows us to go back 123,000 years).

Polar regions are subject to rapid change and have a profound influence on the Earth's climate and ocean systems. Conversely, human activity thousands of miles away can affect Antarctica e.g. ozone depletion caused by industrial activity, the impacts of which are exacerbated over Antarctica which helped the problem be initially detected there. Biological projects look at organisms adaptations to cold. Geologists study Antarctica to piece together the geological evolution of the earth, which has ramifications for our understanding of why climate has changed in the past and allows us to place our predictions for the future on a firmer footing.

Because Antarctica is a continent it lends itself to the support of year round scientific bases, something not possible in the remote Arctic. The agreement between nations to put aside territorial claims also makes working in the region easier and fosters a spirit of international co-operation - something which is fundamental to the way science works. The organisation responsible for running science in Antarctica for the UK is the British Antarctic Survey, which runs five bases in the Antarctic and also provides logistical support for university academics who conduct seasonal research projects..

This is just one of the stories from my talk Antarctic Dreams

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