Putting Antarctica on the map

January 30, 2012 | 2:31 pm | , Science and Solutions Director

As a staff scientist at The Climate Reality Project, I have the good fortune to be traveling to Antarctica this week with our Chairman, former Vice President Al Gore. We’re going there to see some of the most dramatic impacts of the climate crisis firsthand and learn how changes on a faraway continent are linked to all of us around the world.

For me (as well as our Chairman) this will be a return trip. I first traveled to Antarctica in late 2009 as part of a scientific expedition to study Belgica antarctica, a type of fly. (Yes, there are flies in Antarctica.)

Before the trip, I often heard questions like this:

“Will you see polar bears?”

“Who runs the government?”

Or my favorite: “Why would you want to go there?”

These questions showed just how exotic, remote and otherworldly Antarctica is to the average person. As I’ll explain in this post, there are no polar bears in Antarctica, no one person or country runs the continent, and there are many reasons to travel there.

Part of the reason why Antarctica might seem so mysterious is that a typical map doesn’t tell you much about it. The southernmost continent gets stretched along the bottom of most world maps like a misshapen fillet of fish. On others, Antarctica appears as a blank space – or might not show up at all.

Furthermore, most people are just visitors to the continent; almost nobody “lives” there for more than a few months. The scientific research stations there are temporary shelters for scientists and support staff from around the world. In fact, no one country “owns” Antarctica. It is governed under the Antarctic Treaty, which sets aside the continent for peaceful, scientific purposes.

Antarctica also seems like a forbidding place to many people because it is covered in ice: 7.2 million cubic miles of the stuff. But that ice has given climate scientists a window into nearly 1 million years of Earth’s past … and a preview of changes to come. For example, scientists recently extracted the last piece of a more than 2-mile deep ice core that is about 62,000 years old at the bottom. Dust, bubbles of gas, and other chemicals trapped in the ice will help researchers learn more about Earth’s past climate. Another team, also in West Antarctica, is investigating the use of a new monitoring system to study how warming ocean water is thinning the underside of ice shelves – and contributing to sea level rise around the world.

Antarctica is about the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined, and less than 1% of it is free of snow and ice. That ice-free fringe of land has some surprising residents, despite its barren appearance. Remember that fly I mentioned earlier? It lives on the Antarctic Peninsula and it’s able to survive freezing temperatures. There is plenty of other interesting wildlife … but no polar bears, sorry. The only big mammals in Antarctica are seals and whales.

In fact, Antarctica’s Southern Ocean is one of the most biologically productive oceans on Earth, turning “crazy green” in some places because of all the algae. The algae is one type of phytoplankton, the microscopic organisms at the bottom of the ocean food chain. They help support animals we normally associate with Antarctica – like penguins – along with less familiar animals found under the ice. And we’re learning more about life in Antarctica all the time. Earlier this month, scientists reported finding “whole communities” of previously unknown species in the Southern Ocean. Of course, many of these species are also threatened as the oceans warm because of our changing climate.

I knew we had a climate crisis well before I traveled to Antarctica the first time. But seeing all that ice in person has haunted me ever since. If ice loss continues to accelerate, what happens to my friends, family and colleagues on Vancouver Island? In Louisiana? In other coastal regions? I guess you could say Antarctica put climate change on my emotional map.

So the next time you look at a world map, let your imagination fill in some of the features of the world’s coldest, driest, highest and windiest continent. Although it’s thousands of miles away, what happens there will impact literally billions of people around the globe.