It is vast, brutally cold, devoid of humans and seemingly unknowable to those who turn their attention to Antarctica.
But there is no mystery amid those massive ice shelves and seemingly endless ocean to those who understand the place – Antarctica is actually the protector of the planet.
Antarctica remains a frontier to many of us, but it is one that offers some of the most compelling scientific opportunities on the planet and the potential to unlock thousands of secrets about climate, ecology and the environment.
Executive director of Hobart-based Antarctic Science Foundation (ASF), Chrissie Trousselot, runs what she believes is probably the only NFP in Australia that is engaged with science and Antarctica.
Still in its early days, the ASF recently announced funding for its first project, into Antarctic krill, a critical part of the food chain in the Southern Ocean. The Foundation has several projects and initiatives waiting for philanthropic support.
The ASF finds itself at a rare conjunction in time – when the importance of Antarctica in climate change discussions coincides with a resurgent faith in evidence-based science, seen particularly through medical science’s central role in the COVID-19 strategy and response.
“We are a charity motivated by discovering the secrets of Antarctica for the protection of the planet,’’ Chrissie explains.
“Antarctic science predicted the conditions that enabled the bushfires we saw this summer. It’s the climate sentinel.’’
Nothing demonstrates the importance of Antarctica’s role in understanding climate than the international race to find the million-year-old ice core. “That will hold the whole history of our climate,’’ Chrissie says. “That piece of work is like the Holy Grail.’’ Australia is currently working with French scientists in pursuit of the core and there are US, European and Chinese scientists on a similar quest.
In March 2019, the international science magazine Nature identified a European team would start drilling in Antarctica for a 1.5 million-year-old core next month.
“Ice that has accumulated undisturbed over millennia preserves samples of the world’s ancient atmosphere, creating a continuous climate record with high temporal resolution,’’ the magazine explained. Previous drilling going back more than a decade revealed climate and greenhouse gas history of the past 800,000 years.
Chrissie Trousselot, Executive Director of Antarctic Science Foundation
“The cores showed that, over this time, there were 8 pronounced glacial cycles that each lasted nearly 100,000 years. The new core will extend the record to a period when the pattern of climate variability was markedly different,’’ Nature said.
ASF’s goals are somewhat broader but no less important: it supports world-class research that promotes and protects the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean and sub-Antarctic environments and their impact on the planet.
“We’re about protecting the last great wilderness…for future generations,’’ Chrissie says.
In keeping with that, the ASF has awarded a research grant to molecular ecologist Dr Laurence Clarke and Masters’ student Lisa Schellenberg who are working on a project that will ultimately help provide information about how krill live – whether they are in large clusters and how much they intermingle. The results will be relevant, in the end, to the protection of penguins, seals and whales that inhabit the same icy waters and feast on krill.
“So much of the energy in the Southern Ocean goes through the krill,’’ Laurence explains.
There are almost 400 million tonnes of krill in the Southern Ocean, but what isn’t known is how much migration occurs between the swarming krill populations in different parts of the Ocean. Unlocking that secret, according to Laurence, will help make krill more sustainable as well as preserve the Antarctic ecosystem.
Krill are not simple creatures. In fact, their genome structure is considered way more complex than humans and explains why there has been no successful mapping of the krill genome.
Laurence comes to the project through the Australian Antarctic Division, which like the ASF is based in Hobart. As Chrissie describes it, Hobart is the gateway to Antarctica, not just in a geographical sense, from where ships and planes destined for the continent depart. But it is also true in terms of the scientific expertise, through the internationally recognised Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania and the CSIRO’s Antarctic Division.
Dr Laurence Clarke, Molecular Ecologist
The collection of scientists in the one place demonstrates one of the truths about Antarctica – it is a place for collaboration and partnerships.
“You cannot survive out there without co-operation,’’ Chrissie explains. She experienced the rugged beauty of the place for herself some years ago and came away amazed at what she had seen.
Much of the vast area remains unexplored and is obviously off-limits for half of the year. It is an expensive business to be part of the research investment in Antarctica, but the rewards may be great, for Australia and the rest of the world.
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