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Latest news about what is happening in Antarctica...
Ancient microbes discovered alive
beneath Antarctic glacier
(CNN) -- Beneath an Antarctic glacier in a cold, airless pool that never sees the sun seems like an unusual place to search for life.
But under the Taylor Glacier on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, near a place called Blood Falls, scientists have discovered a time capsule of bacterial activity.
At chilling temperatures, with no oxygen or sunlight, these newly found microbes have survived for the past 1.5 million years using an "iron-breathing" technique, which may show how life could exist on other planets.
For years the reddish waterfall-like feature on the side of Taylor Glacier captured the attention of explorers and scientists. Earlier research indicates the color of Blood Falls is due to oxidized iron, but how the iron got to the surface of the glacier remained a mystery.
"When I saw iron, I thought, 'Wow -- that's an energy source for microbes. There has got to be microbes associated with that,' " said Jill Mikucki, lead author of a study about the strange bacteria, published this week in the journal Science.
Scientists found these isolated microorganisms use iron leached from the glacial bedrock in a series of energy-producing metabolic reactions. With the help of sulfate, the iron is transformed and eventually deposited on the surface of the glacier. Air oxidizes the iron, giving Blood Falls its redish hue.
"We don't fully understand the extremities of life: What cuts off life? What are the upper and lower temperatures limits? What are the parameters that life can handle?" said Mikucki, a geomicrobiologist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire.
"Microbes really defy those limits and can get into the extreme environments and tell us a little bit about the natural history of our earth."
Obtaining samples of the bacteria, however, was not an easy task. After years of attempts, Mikucki and her colleagues finally obtained an uncontaminated, clear sample of marine brine that was trapped about 400 meters underneath the glacier and about 4 kilometers from its snout, or lowest end.
After analyzing the chemical composition of the salty liquid, isolating the microbes and analyzing their DNA fragments, Mikucki and her colleagues found several different kinds of microorganisms. Scientists believe they could be remnants of microbes from an open sea millions of years ago.
"It's actually pretty stable and protected below these big ice sheets, and that is something life needs to evolve unique strategies [for survival]," said Mikucki.
The findings open the possibility that life could exist in other remote parts of the universe, researchers said.
"Perhaps the ice caps of Mars are actually protective, and that [kind of] life could exist below some of these ice-covered regions and on other planets," Mikucki said.
"Organisms are highly adaptable to their environments. They are able to slow down as long as they get some energy," said Ann Pearson, co-author of the study and Associate Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Harvard University.
"The amazing idea is that life is everywhere, we just have to look for it," said Pearson.
Source: CNN, updated 10:02 p.m. EDT, Thu April 16, 2009
Large ice shelf expected to break from Antarctica
(CNN) -- A large ice shelf is "imminently" close to breaking away from part of the Antarctic Peninsula, scientists said Friday.
Satellite images released by the European Space Agency on Friday show new cracks in the Wilkins Ice Shelf where it connects to Charcot Island, a piece of land considered part of the peninsula.
The cracks are quickly expanding, the ESA said.
Scientists are investigating the causes for the breakups and whether it is linked to global climate change.
The Wilkins Ice Shelf -- a large mass of floating ice -- would still be connected to Latady Island, which is also part of the peninsula, and Alexander Island, which is not, said professor David Vaughan, a glaciologist at the British Antarctic Survey.
The ice shelf experienced a great amount of changes last year, the ESA said.
In February 2008, the shelf dropped 164 square miles (425 square kilometers) of ice. In May it lost a 62-square-mile chunk.
That meant the "bridge" of ice connecting Wilkins to the islands was just 984 yards wide at its narrowest location, the ESA said.
Further rifts developed in October and November, said Angelika Humbert of the Institute of Geophysics at Germany's Muenster University.
"During the last year the ice shelf has lost about 1800 square kilometers (694 square miles), or about 14 percent of its size," Humbert said.
Antarctica's ice sheet was formed over thousands of years by accumulated and compacted snow. Along the coast, the ice gradually floats on the sea, forming massive ledges known as ice shelves, the ESA says.
Several of these ice shelves, including seven in the past 20 years, have retreated and disintegrated.
The Wilkins Ice Shelf had been stable for most of the past century before it began retreating in the 1990s.
"It had been there almost unchanged since the first expeditions which mapped it back in the 1930s, so it had a very long period of real stability, and it's only in the last decade that it's started to retreat," Vaughan said.
Wilkins is the size of the state of Connecticut, or about half the area of Scotland. It is the largest ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula yet to be threatened.
If the ice shelf breaks away from the peninsula, it will not cause a rise in sea level because it is already floating, scientists say. Some plants and animals may have to adapt to the collapse.
The Antarctic Peninsula is the piece of the continent that stretches toward South America.
Source: CNN, updated 3:04 p.m. EDT, Fri April 3, 2009
Seals and robotic subs monitor Antarctic climate change
(CNN) -- Elephant seals equipped with electronic tags and robotic mini submarines using sonar were just two projects during the International Polar Year (IPY) that aimed to investigate the effects of global warming in polar regions.
The fourth IPY, which began in March 2007 and actually covered two full years, ended last month, after 160 scientific projects were undertaken by researchers from over 60 countries.
A joint project by the International Council for Science (ICSW) and World Meteorological Organization. (WMO), the IPY hoped to spearhead efforts to better monitor and understand the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The project had international funding of about US$ 1.2 billion over the two-year period.
"The International Polar Year 2007/2008 came at a crossroads for the planet's future," said Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of WMO in a press statement. "The new evidence resulting from polar research will strengthen the scientific basis on which we build future actions."
Researchers found that in the Arctic during the summers of 2007 and 2008, the minimum extent of year-round sea ice decreased to its lowest level since satellite records began 30 years ago.
According to a report published by the IPY organizing committee in February, their research indicates that global warming is affecting Antarctica in ways not previously identified.
Other evidence of climate change came from IPY research vessels that found warming waters in the Southern Ocean and an increase in melting ice that is creating fresher bottom water around the coast of Antarctica.
Among efforts to study the effects of climate change on Antarctica, was a Norwegian Polar Institute project to study marine mammals. Custom-designed tags were attached to elephant seals to study the animals' habits, although researcher realized the tags could also help with field research on climate change.
The electronic tags -- which fell off when the seals molted -- sent back data on temperature and salinity the oceans around Antarctica, particularly around the Fimbul Ice Shelf in east Antarctica.
While ice-shelf melt has been recorded in the west of Antarctica, scientists are concerned that it could happen in the east as well.
Another project to study the underside of an Antarctic glacier deployed an autonomous robot submarine. The team from the U.S. and British Antarctic Survey sent the "Autosub" on six missions to study the Pine Island Glacier and how changes in ocean temperature were affecting the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Using sonar, the submarine picked its way around the glacier and sent back data that created three-dimensional maps that scientists used to determine where and how the warmth of the ocean waters was melting the glacier's base.
"If [the West Antarctic Ice Sheet] were to melt completely, global sea levels would rise by as much as 5 meters," said Stan Jacobs, the U.S. lead scientist on the project.
"Because so little is known about ice-sheet behavior, this research will take us a step further in understanding how ice sheets will contribute to sea-level rise."
Source: CNN, updated 12:08 p.m. EDT, Fri April 10, 2009
The polar explorer searching for green warriors
(CNN) -- Robert Swan's life reads like a boy's own adventure tale with a modern eco-twist.
Inspired by the daring age of Antarctic exploration, Swan followed in the footsteps of his heroes; the men who risked, and lost, their lives to reach the South Pole.
At the age of 29 he embarked on an expedition to the South Pole that was unsupported -- a trek that required him to pull his own sleigh and that lacked medical support crews.
By the time he was 33 he had become the first man to walk to both the North and South poles unsupported.
But for Swan, the epic journeys to the Poles, and the sailing and overland adventures that have followed, unearthed more than just a spirit for adventure.
He experienced firsthand the impact of humanity on the environment when under the hole in the ozone layer at the South Pole, the harsh ultraviolet rays from the sun burned his skin and permanently changed the color of his eyes.
It firmed a desire to preserve the fragile natural world and to educate and inspire others, particularly the next generation of decision-makers to do the same.
"As the last unspoiled wilderness on Earth, Antarctica is currently protected by the treaty prohibiting drilling and mining until 2041. Decisions made by today's youth will impact our entire planet's ecosystem and the future of life on earth," he says on 2041.com.
His polar icewalks gained international attention and in 1992 he was asked to speak at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, later gaining an OBE and being appointed Special Envoy to the Director General of UNESCO in recognition of his work.
At the Earth Summit in Rio he committed to a "global mission" to remove 1,500 tons of waste from Antarctica. Swan and a team of young people from across the world were successful in cleaning up the Russian Antarctic base of Bellinghausen by 2000, making it inhabitable for wildlife again.
Foresight, planning and determination then are not alien to a man who spent five years sourcing the funding for his first Antarctic expedition, and Swan's latest project is taking an even longer-term view.
Swan founded his organization "2041" in 2003 in order to further his mission of action and education.
Named after the year in which Antarctica's protection against mineral exploitation ends, Swan regularly takes business people, teachers and students on expeditions to Antarctica to impress on those with the capacity to enact change that preservation of the environment is essential and achievable.
Continuing the green mission on the continent by minimizing the human footprint in the region, his international teams have helped design and build the world's first education station in Antarctica that is run solely on renewable energy.
Add to the expeditions, ocean voyages on a boat with sails made from recycled plastic bottles, and it's clear that the veteran polar explorer is a man who is doing all he can to protect and preserve the Antarctic.
Source: CNN, updated 9:58 p.m. EDT, Sun March 22, 2009
Cruise ship grounded off Antarctica coast
(CNN) -- The owners of a cruise ship that ran aground in Marguerite Bay, Antarctica, are hoping high tide will dislodge the ship Wednesday, a company statement said.
Connecticut-based Quark Expeditions said the M/V Ocean Nova
became stranded Tuesday in the bay not far from an Argentine
research base. Marguerite Bay is about 900 miles south of the tip of
The ship is carrying 65 passengers and 41 crew members, Quark Expeditions said.
All those aboard the vessel "remain safe and calm," the company statement said.
The ship's captain is awaiting high tide to make another attempt to move the vessel.
"The midnight operation will occur in daylight, as the ship is below the Antarctic Circle, where the sun never sets during February. We anticipate a positive outcome," Quark Expeditions president Patrick Shaw said.
The captain is also waiting for divers from the Spanish naval ship the Hespérides to inspect the hull of the Nova to make sure it's not damaged, the statement said.
Source: CNN, updated 10:52 a.m. EST, Wed February 18, 2009
Cruise Ships at Risk in the Antarctic?
- February 2003 - The Marco Polo (Norwegian Cruises) ran aground in Half moon Island, Antarctica causing hull damage and was able to sail back to Ushuaia, Argentina.
- January 2004 - The luxury cruise ship Marco Polo struck ice while sailing in to Hope Bay Antarctica causing damage.
- February 2006 - The MS Nordnorge evacuated 294 passengers, including 119 Americans from a sister Norwegian cruise ship, the MS Nordkapp, which ran aground off a remote Antarctic island. The Nordkapp later pulled off the rocks under its own power and authorities said those passengers were never in danger.
- November 2007 - The red-hulled M/S Explorer (G.A.P. Adventures) became the first cruse to sink in Antarctica after striking ice. All 154 passengers and crew members were saved after scrambling to safety aboard lifeboats and rafts.
- December 2007 - Because of engine problems, the M/S Fram (Hurtigruten Cruises) drifted into an iceberg near Brown's Bluff on the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula that damaged the ship –- but neither injuries nor leakages were reported.
- December 2008 - The M/V Ushuaia (Antarpply Expeditions) became the second incident of a ship running aground in Antarctica. The ship ran aground in Wilhelmina Bay, near Cape Ann. All passengers and crew members were rescued.
- February 2009 - The Antarctic cruise ship the M/V Ocean Nova (Quark Expeditions) ran aground in Marguerite Bay, near the Antarctic Peninsula, with 106 passengers and crew aboard.
These incidences help to underscore the dangers of traveling in the Antarctic.
Global warming hits Antarctica, study finds
(CNN) -- Antarctica is warming in line with the rest of the world, according to a new study on climate change in Antarctica.
Rather than being the last bastion to resist global warming, U.S. research has found that for the past 50 years much of the continent of Antarctica has been getting warmer.
For years common belief among scientists studying climate change was that a large part of Antarctica, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, has been getting colder while the rest of the world has warmed.
However the new research from the University of Washington has found that warming in West Antarctica exceeded one-tenth of a degree Celsius per decade for the past 50 years, which more than offsets the cooling in East Antarctica.
"West Antarctica is a very different place than East Antarctica, and there is a physical barrier, the Transantarctic Mountains, that separates the two," said Professor Eric Steig, lead author of the research paper.
The study's findings appeared in Thursday's issue of the scientific journal Nature.
At 6,000 feet (1,829 meters) above sea level the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is around 4,000 feet lower than East Antarctica and subject to warm, moist storms and more snowfall.
In gathering the data Steig and fellow researchers used information from satellites, which was crucial in providing new insight into patterns of temperature change across the continent.
Previous research on climate in Antarctica that relied solely on Antarctic weather stations, in place since 1957, could not get as much information about conditions on the interior of the continent as most are placed within a short distance of the coast.
"Simple explanations don't capture the complexity of climate," Steig said.
"The thing you hear all the time is that Antarctica is cooling and that's not the case. If anything it's the reverse, but it's more complex than that. Antarctica isn't warming at the same rate everywhere, and while some areas have been cooling for a long time the evidence shows the continent as a whole is getting warmer."
A major reason most of Antarctica was thought to be cooling was because of a hole in the ozone layer that appears during the spring months in the Southern Hemisphere's polar region.
Steig noted that it is well established that the ozone hole has contributed to cooling in East Antarctica.
"However, it seems to have been assumed that the ozone hole was affecting the entire continent when there wasn't any evidence to support that idea, or even any theory to support it," he said.
"In any case, efforts to repair the ozone layer eventually will begin taking effect and the hole could be eliminated by the middle of this century. If that happens, all of Antarctica could begin warming on a par with the rest of the world."
Source: CNN, updated 10:45 a.m. EST, Thu January 22, 2009
Cat control lead to eco disaster on World Heritage island
(CNN) -- Efforts to remove cats from Macquarie Island, a sub-Antarctic island and World Heritage Site, have indirectly led to environmental devastation, according to a report published in the Journal of Applied Ecology.
The removal of cats has led to a boom in the island's rabbit population -- another species introduced by humans -- causing widespread devastation to the island's vegetation.
According to the study's lead author, Dr. Dana Bergstrom of the Australian Antarctic Division: "Satellite images show substantial island-wide rabbit-induced vegetation change. By 2007, impacts on some protected valleys and slopes had become acute. We estimate that nearly 40 percent of the whole island area had changed, with almost 20 percent having moderate to severe change."
The removal of the invasive species from Macquarie Island, situated halfway between Australia and Antarctica, also serves as a wider warning about human interference in ecosystems and how good intentions can go awry.
It is a case from which important lessons must be learned, according to the report's authors.
The scientists behind the study claim that the Macquarie Island is a rare example of so-called "trophic cascades" -- the knock-on effects of changes in one species' abundance across several links in the food chain. As well as species extinction, in extreme cases it can even lead to an ecosystem "meltdown".
"This study is one of only a handful which demonstrate that theoretically plausible trophic cascades associated with invasive species removal not only do take place, but can also result in rapid and detrimental changes to ecosystems, so negating the direct benefits of the removal of the target species," says Bergstrom.
Macquarie Island was discovered in 1810 with the remote island's seal and penguin population targeted for the fur trade. Cats were introduced to the island soon after to eat rats and mice that threatened to eat the sailors' grain stores. It was sealing gangs who then brought rabbits to the island in 1878 to give sailors something to eat.
The rabbits provided easy prey for the island's cats, helping their number to grow, but the rabbit population was also causing catastrophic damage to the island's vegetation.
Myxomatosis, a disease fatal to rabbits was introduced to the island in 1968 to try and curb their number. It worked at first as rabbit numbers fell from a peak of 130,000 in 1978 to less than 20,000 ten years later and vegetation recovered.
However, with fewer rabbits as food, the cats began to eat the island's native burrowing birds, so a cat eradication program began in 1985.
The last cat on the island was killed in 2000, and Myxomatosis had failed to keep rabbit numbers in check; their numbers bounced back and in little over six years rabbits substantially altered large areas of the island.
According to Bergstrom: "Increased rabbit herbivory has caused substantial damage at both local and landscape scales including changes from complex vegetation communities, to short, grazed lawns or bare ground."
Bergstrom hopes that the problems facing Macquarie Island are a cautionary tale for conservation agencies: "Interventions should be comprehensive, and include risk assessments to explicitly consider and plan for indirect effects, or face substantial subsequent cost," says Bergstrom.
The cost to remedy the problems of Macquarie Island is estimated at $16 million.
Source: CNN, updated 12:44 a.m. EST, Tue January 13, 2009
Other Related Polar or Regional News
Team battles Arctic winter to measure melting ice caps
(CNN) -- It could be the ultimate test of human endurance: Three British explorers are risking their lives in subzero temperatures to measure the melting Arctic ice cap.
The team is on a three-month, 621-mile (1,000-kilometer) hike to their final destination at the North Pole. Along the way, taking precise measurements to determine exactly how fast the ice cap is disappearing.
"It's extremely difficult to live out here. It's very, very easy to get cold injuries in seconds," said Martin Hartley, team photographer and filmmaker, via satellite phone.
The team has been braving temperatures as low as minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit/Celsius spending their nights sleeping in tents and their days trudging across the shifting, barren polar expanse.
"The other day, we had to move the tent first thing in the morning because where we were camped, the sheet of ice was breaking up into dozens of pieces because of a tidal swell or wind in the ocean," Hartley said.Video
The unique expedition was prompted by this chilling prospect: The Arctic ice cap is melting at an unprecedented rate, which may lead to a dramatic shift in average global temperatures.
"In 2007, sea ice loss was the worst in recorded history," said oceanographer Kate Moran, professor of oceanography and ocean engineering at the University of Rhode Island.
The last time that scientists can say confidently that the Arctic was free of summertime ice was 125,000 years ago, according to the Web site of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.
All that could vanish within our lifetime, warn climate scientists, who predict that the Arctic sea ice in the summer season could be gone between 2013 and 2040.
Battling the daily grind of the brutal Arctic terrain, explorers Pen Hadow, 46; Ann Daniels, 44; and Hartley, 40, are in the second week of their 100-day journey to the top of the world.
"The compasses don't work because we are so close to the north magnetic pole," said Hadow, director and head of surveying for the Catlin Arctic Survey.
"When the sun goes down, we have to use other techniques to keep ourselves orienting north based on wind direction alone and reading snow drifts and using them as a guide," added Hadow.
Current ice cap data are gathered by satellite and submarines, which can show the overall span of the Arctic ice melt, but these projections are not sufficient to provide an accurate estimate of its actual thickness.
"There is no substitute for getting down on your hands and knees with a tape measure and drilling a hole and measuring the snow thickness, ice thickness and the free board where the water comes in up through that surface," Hadow said.
The Arctic sea ice acts as a natural sunlight reflector, protecting the Earth from overheating.
As the ice thins, more sunlight passes through, further warming the ocean and accelerating the effects of climate change.
This feedback loop could have catastrophic consequences for people living in coastal areas and many animal species, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations governing body on climate change.
The privately funded $4.3 million Catlin Arctic Survey is set to end in May.
"We are not here just to make a journey to the North Pole. We've all done that. That's not the motivating force. How much information can we find out and deliver back to the wider world for its use?" Hadow asked.
The scientific findings will be presented at the United Nations Climate Change Conference of Parties in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December. There, an international committee of scientists, heads of state and policymakers will gather to assess the Kyoto Protocol.
The explorers are also tracking their journey on Facebook and keeping the public updated with daily Internet-based feeds on Twitter.
"People ask me how I keep going. I don't know. I just have to, because if I don't keep going, it all falls apart," said Daniels, group navigator.
"You just have to grit your teeth and remember why you are out here and get on with it."
Source: CNN, updated 9:02 a.m. EDT, Wed March 11, 2009
Catlin Arctic Survey - The Catlin Arctic Survey is an
international collaboration between polar explorers and some of
the world’s foremost scientific bodies. It seeks to resolve one
of the most important environmental questions of our time:
How long will the Arctic Ocean's sea ice cover remain a permanent feature of our planet?
This scientific Endeavour began on 28th February 2009. The expedition is being led by highly experienced polar explorer Pen Hadow. Accompanying him will be Ann Daniels, one of the world's foremost female polar explorers and Martin Hartley, leading expedition photographer. Follow: Twitter
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