Record Antarctic sea ice causing serious problems for scientists

antarcticRob Wooding, the operations manager of the Australian Antarctic Division, told the media on Monday that growing sea ice around Antarctica is creating ‘serious problems’ for scientists studying the continent. Mawson Station, the longest continuously operated outpost in Antarctica, has relied on access to a nearby bay, which is increasingly becoming more complicated by sea ice blocking the way.

Wooding said “We are noticing that the sea ice situation is becoming more difficult.” This briefing was in preparation of “two days of meetings between top Antarctic science and logistics experts in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania.”

He said that it’s especially bad at Mawson, where the ice typically breaks up for maybe one or two months each summer, but “in the last four to six years this has not happened every year, and some years only partially.”

“In the 2013-14 season we couldn’t get anywhere near Mawson due to the sea ice,” he said. “We had to get fuel in there by helicopter which is inadequate for the long-term sustainability of the station.” He also noted that the French and Japanese are having the same problems. Though they haven’t come close to shutting down the base because of expanding sea ice, they did have to use “unusual measures” to keep it operational.

Antarctic sea ice extent hit a new record in September 2014, “with the US-based National Snow and Ice Data Center reporting that the ice averaged 20.0 million square kilometres (7.72 million square miles) during the month.” The strong winds produced by the Southern Ocean are believed to be affecting sea ice conditions, which push the ice out from the continent.

Workarounds to the sea ice problem include using large aircraft and hovercrafts to deliver much-needed fuel and other supplies to the outposts affected by the growing sea ice problem. “I think a lot of it really will revolve around perhaps shifting more to an over-ice approach, or to even thinking about where your stations are located — I think (that) is something that will have to be looked at over time as well,” Wooding said.

He also said there were some spots that may become even more difficult to operate if the trend continues. Tony Worby, from an Australian centre studying Antarctic climate and ecosystems, also said at the briefing that, “It’s almost an inevitability that we are going to get ships stuck occasionally — it’s just the nature of working down in Antarctica.”

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