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The scientific study of Antarctica has taken on new importance in monitoring and understanding the effects of global warming and climate change. Changes in the movement and melting of ice sheets and glaciers, along with changes in the growth and seasonal melting of sea ice, affect climate and sea levels worldwide as well as altering conditions for wildlife in the region. Determining the cause of such changes is complex, however. Normal variations in climate, currents, and wind patterns may play a major role independent of effects of higher levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
Warmer waters in the region could also affect wildlife. High levels of ultraviolet light from holes in the protective ozone layer may be harmful to marine life as well as to birds and mammals. Pollution carried by winds and currents enters the food chain and has been detected in wildlife in Antarctica.
Research projects to study changes in the Antarctic include the International Polar Year (IPY) 2007/2008, conducted from March 2007 to March 2009. The IPY involves thousands of scientists from more than 60 nations in more than 200 projects focused on the Arctic and the Antarctic. Topics of study include biology, geology, climatology, meteorology, oceanography, and geophysics. Also ongoing is the Census of Antarctic Marine Life (CAML). The CAML is part of the international Census of Marine Life (CoML), a ten-year international initiative begun in 2000 to study life in the oceans. Satellites in space regularly monitor and map Antarctica and the ocean waters and ice around the continent.
In addition to such special projects, scientists from dozens of nations at more than 40 stations participate in year-round research on Antarctica. Most stations are located on rocky shores or coastal ice slopes. A few stations sit farther inland on the ice cap, cut off from the outside world except by radio. Small stations have up to a dozen scientists and support staff, while larger stations may have two to three times as many. The largest is McMurdo, which may accommodate several thousand visitors in summer, including those on their way to inland stations or field camps. Life at the smaller stations is simple, with comfortable living quarters and a family atmosphere. Larger stations resemble hotels or barracks, with cafeteria meals and fewer home comforts. The largest stations are effectively small towns, with stores, cinemas, chapels, banks, offices, laboratories, garages, powerhouses, airstrips, and hostels for residents and visitors.
Men far outnumber women in Antarctica. Although some people spend one or two years there at a time, most visit just for the summer months when good weather facilitates fieldwork. Many scientists who work indoors in laboratories or offices, perhaps servicing self-recording instruments or collecting data by radio from remote instruments, may hardly be aware of the cold world outside. Field scientists who travel in small parties by tractor or skidoo (motorized toboggan), surveying or collecting specimens and camping for weeks on end, live and work much closer to the challenges of Antarctica’s unique landscape and climate.
Scientists have studied extensively Antarctica’s ice sheet and the land beneath it. Geologists and solid-earth geophysicists conduct research in plate tectonics, the study of the plates of the Earth’s crust. Antarctica is a valued source of fossils, which provide a record of the breakup of the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Although most of Antarctica is covered in ice, ancient rock is exposed in the parts of the Transantarctic Mountains and on islands on the Antarctic Peninsula. Paleontologists have found fossils of dinosaurs, marine reptiles, birds, mammals, and other prehistoric animals as well as plant life that lived in Antarctica when the climate was much more temperate, although sunlight was absent or reduced for part of the winter.
Glaciologists measure the movement and the layers of the ice sheet. They use satellites to plot the slow movement of the ice surface. Ice cores drilled through the layers of the ice sheet have enabled scientists to trace changes in the climate over a period of tens of thousands of years. Scientists have put radio transmitters on icebergs to plot their movement. Some countries have considered the possibility of towing icebergs to arid regions as a source of fresh water.
Astronomers have installed telescopes in Antarctica to take advantage of the long dark nights and clear atmosphere. In addition to infrared and visible-light observatories, neutrino detectors have been buried in ice to map the source of these elusive subatomic particles. The converging magnetic force lines at the poles also increase the flux of cosmic rays, which can be studied with instruments on high-altitude balloons. Scientists also collect meteorites that have landed in the ice sheet, including specimens from the Moon and from Mars.
Biologists study the microbial, plant, and animal life of the Antarctic region. These scientists model the continent’s relatively simple ecosystems, study responses of plants and animals to hostile environments, and measure the impacts of people on the polar environment. Marine biologists study the local marine food chains. Warmer ocean temperatures and increased ultraviolet radiation could have major effects on marine life in the Antarctic region.
The atmosphere above the continent provides another important area of study. Antarctica provides important information for climatologists modeling atmospheric circulation, or the constant flow of warm air toward the poles and cold air toward the equator. Antarctica’s relatively unpolluted, thin, and dry atmosphere allows scientists to study phenomena such as auroras and transmission of radio waves. Most notably, these scientists study the levels of ozone, the atmospheric gas that protects life on the Earth from the Sun’s harmful ultraviolet radiation. In 1985 they identified the so-called ozone hole, a region of depleted ozone that develops over Antarctica each spring and virtually disappears several months later. Continuous monitoring revealed that the size of the hole continued to increase.
Largely due to the work of Antarctic scientists, many nations have reduced or eliminated the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which have been linked to ozone depletion. In 1987, 36 nations, including the United States, signed the Montreal Protocol, a treaty to protect the ozone layer. In the 1990s further steps were taken to ban the production of CFCs. Many scientists believe that the presence of CFCs in the atmosphere peaked in 2001 and then began to decline. Nevertheless, U.S. government scientists reported in 2006 that the ozone hole over Antarctica had reached its greatest extent ever. They do not expect the ozone layer to recover until 2065.
Finally, medical researchers study the scientists and support staff living in Antarctica. Physicians have made discoveries about the behavior of viruses in a cold, isolated environment. Immunologists study the ability of expeditioners to resist infection. Psychological and sleep studies are frequently conducted during the winter, when the extreme climate and lack of visitors isolate workers from the outside world.