University projects secure major funding for Antarctic futures research

Two projects co-led by Victoria University of Wellington researchers to investigate the impact of climate change on the Antarctic region have received $15 million in funding.

Professor James Renwick from the School of Geography, Environment, and Earth Sciences receives funding to investigate variations in sea ice and carbon dioxide uptake by the Southern Ocean and the effect this will have on oceans, ice shelves, ecosystems, and carbon budgets. The research will explore what drives changes in sea ice and carbon dioxide uptake, the links between these two phenomena, and the consequences of these changes.

“Sea ice is a critical component of the climate system. It connects atmosphere and ocean, and it buffers the ice shelves that protrude from the vast Antarctic ice sheets. The base of the sea ice layer is a habitat for an amazing array of marine life,” says Professor Renwick.

“How sea ice changes in future has implications for the ocean circulation and for marine ecosystems, both of which affect the uptake of carbon dioxide by the oceans. Better understanding of Antarctic sea ice changes is a key part of the climate change story for the Southern Hemisphere and for the world.”

Professor Renwick is co-principal investigator alongside Dr Natalie Robinson from NIWA and Dr Liz Keller from GNS Science.

The second project co-led by Dr Huw Horgan from the University’s Antarctic Research Centre involves studying the future of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. It will focus on understanding past and current causes of ice sheet retreat to inform projections of future change, looking at how marine-based ice sheets will respond to warming of two degrees or more, and the consequences of this warming.

“Antarctica’s ice sheets have the potential to profoundly change sea level over the coming centuries. This funding supports an interdisciplinary collaborative effort to investigate the ice sheet and ocean properties and processes that will determine this change. Central to our programme is direct access beneath the deep interior of the Ross Ice Shelf and West Antarctic Ice Sheet—we’ll be getting the observations we need most, right where they matter most,” Dr Horgan says. The primary investigator on this project is Dr Richard Levy from GNS Science.

The projects are part of a series funded by the Antarctic Science Platform, which is hosted by Antarctica New Zealand and exclusively supports research into Antarctica’s impact on New Zealand and the rest of planet Earth, and how climate change will affect this impact.

Platform Director and Victoria University of Wellington academic Associate Professor Nancy Bertler says as the world acts to implement the Paris Agreement—a United Nations-brokered deal to combat climate change—the Platform’s research will provide a detailed assessment of global consequences of Antarctica’s response to warming.

“New Zealand is acknowledged as a leader in this field. This new, coordinated programme builds on decades of frontier research and will support urgent and highly interdisciplinary research, along with new technology, to critically improve future projections,” she says.