For scientists at this ice-encircled outpost, global warming is not a matter of debate. It is a simple fact and crucial research questions centre on what its consequences will be. Antarctica is a prime place for this research because it serves as an early warning system for climate change and is a major influence on global weather.
Because about 90 per cent of the world’s ice volume and 70 per cent of its fresh water is on the southernmost continent, any substantial warming could cause a rise in sea levels around the globe.
“It’s a bellwether for the planet,” Tom Wagner of the US National Science Foundation said in an e-mail interview. “Its ice sheets are the main player in sea level rise. There is already evidence that they are shrinking.”
It was easy to imagine melting ice sheets this week around McMurdo Station, the biggest science centre of the United States in Antarctica, with temperatures in the relatively balmy range of 28 degrees Fahrenheit and the 24-hour-a-day spring sunshine causing pools of melted water atop a 15-foot layer of ice around the base.
Much of the sea ice is cracked and the nearby Barne Glacier has had several major collapses onto the sea ice in recent days. Still, heavy tracked vehicles can navigate the ice on designated pathways.
While these are not specifically signs of global warming, Antarctica and the Arctic are key places to look for such signals because even a slight rise in temperature can precipitate melting ice, which would have dramatic effects on living things and land, as well as global climate implications, Wagner said.
For Ross Powell, an environmental geologist, one way to figure out what the future of climate change might be is to look some 10 million years