200 Years of Exploring Antarctica — the World’s Coldest, Most Forbidding and Most Peaceful Continent
By Dan Morgan
Antarctica is the remotest part of the world, but it is a hub of scientific discovery, international diplomacy and environmental change. It was officially discovered 200 years ago, on Jan. 27, 1820, when members of a Russian expedition sighted land in what is now known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf on the continent's east side.
Early explorers were drawn there by the mythology of Terra Australis, a vast southern continent that scholars imagined for centuries as a counterweight to the Northern Hemisphere. Others sought economic bounty from hunting whales and seals, or the glory of conquering the planet's last wilderness. Still others wanted to understand Earth's magnetic fields in order to better navigate the seas.
I am a geologist who specializes in understanding the timing and extent of past ice ages. Much of my work focuses on the glacial history of Antarctica, and I've been privileged to conduct five field seasons of research there.
For the next two years I'll be working with a field team made up entirely of undergraduate students from Vanderbilt University to determine whether the East Antarctic Ice Sheet changes flow patterns as it changes shape. All of the research these budding scientists conduct will be done under the auspices of the Antarctic Treaty, a global agreement that promotes scientific cooperation and environmental protection.
Frozen but Abundant
Antarctica separated from South America 35 million years ago, and its climate started to change. It began to grow ice sheets – masses of glacial land ice covering thousands of square miles. As plate tectonics shifted other continents, Antarctica became colder and drier. For the past 14 million years, it has been the frigid continent that persists today.
Antarctica is the only continent that was literally discovered, because it has no native human population. British explorer Sir James Cook circumnavigated the continent in 1772-1775, but saw only some outlying islands. Cook concluded that if there were any land, it would be "condemned to everlasting regidity by Nature, never to yield to the warmth of the sun."
Cook also reported that Antarctic waters were rich with nutrients and wildlife. This drew sealers and whalers, mainly from England and the U.S., who hunted the region's fur seals and elephant seals to near-extinction in the following decades. This hunting spree led to the discovery of the Antarctic mainland and its ice sheets, the largest in the world.
Antarctica is mostly covered by ice sheets on land and fringed by floating ice shelves. NOAA
Reading the Ice
Today the combined East and West Antarctic ice sheets hold 90% of the world's ice, enough to raise global sea levels by roughly 200 feet (60 meters) if it all melted. Antarctica is the coldest, highest, driest, windiest, brightest, and yes, iciest continent on Earth. And 200 years of research has shown that it is a key component of Earth's climate system.
Despite the appearance that it is an unchanging, freeze-dried landscape, my research and work by many others has shown that the East Antarctica Ice Sheet does slowly thin and thicken over millions of years. Interestingly, my data also suggest that as the ice advances and retreats, it moves in the same patterns each time. Put another way, the ice flows over the same land each time it advances.
While East Antarctica adds and loses ice slowly, it is so large that it is a major contributor to sea level rise. Understanding how the ice has changed in the past is key to predicting how much and how fast it will melt in the coming years.
These questions are especially important in West Antarctica, where the bottom of the ice sheet is below sea level, making it very susceptible to changes in sea level and ocean temperature. By itself, the West Antarctic ice sheet has the potential to raise sea level by 16 feet (5 meters) if it collapses.
As climate change raises global sea levels, parts of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, such as the Thwaites and Pine Island Glaciers, are particularly vulnerable to collapse. At the end of the last ice age, parts of West Antarctica thinned by an average of 1.5 to 3 feet (0.5 - 1 meters) per year. Today with GPS, satellite and airborne measurements, scientists are seeing parts of West Antarctica thin by 3 to 20 feet (1 to 6 meters) per year.
We also know from the geological record that this ice sheet is capable of rapid collapses, and has sometimes thinned at rates in excess of 30 feet (10 meters) per year. Recent models show sea level could rise by 1 meter by 2100 and 15 meters by 2500 if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current rates and the ice sheet experiences a rapid collapse, as it has in the past.
Finding Inspiration in Scientific Diplomacy
Despite the potential for environmental disaster in Antarctica, the continent also offers evidence that nations can collaborate to find solutions. The Antarctic Treaty System is the world's premier example of peaceful and scientific international cooperation.
This landmark accord, signed in 1961, sets aside Antarctica for peaceful and scientific purposes and recognizes no land claims on the continent. It also was the first non-nuclear accord ever signed, barring use of Antarctica for nuclear weapons testing or disposal of radioactive waste.
The great Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton said that "optimism is true moral courage," and the authors of the Antarctic Treaty were certainly courageous optimists. They were encouraged by the success of the 1957-1958 International Geophysical Year, a worldwide program of scientific research during which 12 countries built over 50 bases in Antarctica, including McMurdo Station and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station.
Flags of the 12 original Antarctic Treaty member countries at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. U.S. Antarctic Program / Rob Jones
Under the treaty, scientists from North Korea, Russia and China can freely visit U.S. research stations in Antarctica. Researchers from India and Pakistan willingly share their data about Antarctic glaciers.
Thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, 10% of Earth's land surface is protected as a wildlife and wilderness refuge. I have set foot in places in Antarctica where I know no one has ever been before, and the treaty sets areas aside that no one will ever visit. Antarctica's landscapes are unlike anywhere else on Earth. The best comparison may be the Moon.
Yet in these stark environments, life finds a way to persist – showing that there are solutions to even the most daunting challenges. If Antarctica has taught us anything in 200 years, it's that we can cooperate and collaborate to overcome problems. As Ernest Shackleton once said, "Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all."
Dan Morgan is an associate dean and principal senior lecturer in earth and environmental sciences at Vanderbilt University.
Disclosure statement: Dan Morgan receives funding from the National Science Foundation.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
Environmental officials and members of the U.S. Coast Guard are racing to clean up a mysterious oil spill that has spread to 11 miles of Delaware coastline.
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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Towards the end of the final presidential debate of the 2020 election season, the moderator asked both candidates how they would address both the climate crisis and job growth, leading to a nearly 12-minute discussion where Donald Trump did not acknowledge that the climate is changing and Joe Biden called the climate crisis an existential threat.
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By Zheng Chen and Darren H. S. Tan
As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.