Frozen continent could be key to Earth's future A Gentoo penguin feeds its baby at Station Bernardo O'Higgins in Antarctica (AP photos)
Frozen continent could be key to Earth's future
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Earth's past, present and future come together on the northern peninsula of Antarctica. It is the wildest, most desolate and mysterious of continents.

Clues to answering humanity's most basic questions are locked in this freezer. The continent is the size of the United States and half of Canada: Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? What's the fate of our warming planet?

The first explorers set foot in Antarctica 194 years ago. They were hunting 19th century riches. They wanted whale and seal oil and fur. Since then, the fist-shaped continent has proven a treasure chest for scientists.

"It's a window out to the universe and in time," said Kelly Falkner, polar program chief for the U.S. National Science Foundation.

For a dozen days in January, The Associated Press followed scientists from different fields. They were searching for alien-like creatures, hints of pollution trapped in ancient ice, leftovers from the Big Bang, and biological quirks. Those potentially could lead to better medical treatments. And perhaps most of all, the scientists were looking for signs of unstoppable melting.

The journey was aboard a Chilean navy ship. It traveled along the South Shetland islands and vulnerable Antarctic Peninsula. That land juts off the continent. The trip logged 833 miles. It allowed the AP team a firsthand look at part of this vital continent.

Antarctica conjures up images of quiet mountains and white plateaus. But the coldest, driest and remotest continent is far from dormant. About 98 percent of it is covered by ice. And that ice is constantly moving. Temperatures can range from above zero in the South Shetlands and Antarctic Peninsula to the unbearable frozen lands. Those are near the South Pole.

As an active volcano, Deception Island is a pot of extreme conditions. There are spots where the sea boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. In others, it can be freezing..

Tourists come to Antarctica for its beauty and remoteness. Scientists, however, are all business. What they find could affect the lives of people thousands of miles away. Many experts believe the West Antarctic ice sheet has started to melt irreversibly. If it's true, what happens here will determine if cities such as Miami, New York and New Orleans will have to regularly battle flooding from rising seas.

Antarctica "is big and ... and we can't afford to ignore what's going on down there," said David Vaughan. He is science director of the British Antarctic Survey.

Last year researchers calculated that ice on the western side of the continent was melting faster than expected. Last month, scientists researching vital geology in that melting were looking a half mile under the ice in pitch dark. They found a surprise. It was a fish a half foot long. And they found shrimp-like creatures were swimming by their cameras.

Geologists are entranced by Antarctica's secrets. On a recent scientific expedition led by Chile's Antarctic Institute, Richard Spikings, a research geologist at the University of Geneva, wielded a hammer. He collected rock samples. Curious members of a penguin colony on Cape Legoupil watched.

"We're also learning about the real antiquity of the Earth," Spikings said. He added that the insights will help him understand Antarctica's key role in the jigsaw of ancient super continents. They had names like Rodinia, Gondwana and Pangaea. Scientists believe they once were significant landmasses.

There is no local industry. Any pollution captured in the pristine ice and snow is from chemicals that traveled from afar. There are low levels of lead found in ice until it was phased out of gasoline. Or radiation levels found from above-ground nuclear tests. Those occurred thousands of miles away and decades ago. The tests were held by the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Vaughan said.

The ice tells how levels of carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping gas, have fluctuated over hundreds of thousands of years. This is also the place where there is a hole in the ozone layer. It was created from man-made refrigerants and aerosols. The hole parks for a couple months and causes trouble. It happens when sunlight creeps back to Antarctica in August. The light triggers a chemical reaction. That destroys ozone molecules. It causes a hole that peaks in September and then closes with warmer weather in November.

Because of the pristine nature of the bottom of the world, when a meteorite lands here it stays untouched. So researchers find more meteorites. They often are from Mars. One was discovered nearly 20 years ago. It had scientists initially thinking, incorrectly, they had found proof that life once existed on Mars.

"Antarctica in many ways is like another planet," said Jose Retamales. He is the director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute.

"It's a completely different world."

Critical thinking challenge: Why are Miami, New York and New Orleans more at risk for flooding that other U.S. cities?

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COMMENTS (15)
  • FaithS1-Bru
    2/26/2015 - 01:07 p.m.

    Miami, New York, and New Orleans are more at risk of flooding than other U.S. cities. I believe this because all three of the listed are cities by the coast, therefor more vulnerable to floods. Building cities next to large bodies of water is very common, since we all need water to survive. Those cities generally seem to thrive because they don't need to worry about water shortages. If the ice does happen to rapidly melt, the oceans' water levels will rise and flood the lowland, coastal areas.

  • WilliamH-Phe
    3/11/2015 - 10:44 a.m.

    if this has a afect on the coastal city's it could be disaterous.

  • KerrF-Sua
    3/24/2015 - 07:27 p.m.

    The question is why are Miami, New York and New Orleans more at risk for flooding than other us cities. I think it is because the ice is melting in the west. It is also getting colder in the east. Also the far west California is in a drought. Those are my 3 reasons.

  • CirilloP-Sua
    3/24/2015 - 08:02 p.m.

    Miami, New York, and New Orleans are at risk flooding u.s. cities. They are at risk doing it because there is a lot of people in the u.s.. And that will effect the u.s. people. It will also hurt some people to. That is why it is at risk.

  • SinningK-Sua
    3/24/2015 - 09:29 p.m.

    Question of the Day: Why are Miami, New York and New Orleans more at risk for flooding that other U.S. cities?

    My Answer:
    I think that Miami, New York, and New Orleans have more at risk for flooding than US cities because it has less a drought than in California where it BARELY rains. I think that because I live in a place where it has a big drought and I know what it is like because it is on the news everywhere and is such a big thing, now in New York and New Orleans they had like lots of snow I think up to 2-2 1/2 feet and had crazy pictures of it on GMA (Good Morning America) that is how I got this answer. Also, I think that because on like football games for the Saints and the Jets at HOME there is snow, and if it were to ever snow here by the time it falls and you try to catch a snowflake it melts! Finally, why I think that is because it always warms up it hardly stays the same weather and there are many tropical storms in Miami. That is what I think about risking floods.

  • StoneM-Sua
    3/24/2015 - 09:53 p.m.

    Miami, New York and New Orleans are more at risk of flooding for a couple reasons. First, Miami is close to water and the Atlantic Ocean, so if the waves start to come in high, then it can flood. Next, New York City is also close to the ocean the Atlantic Ocean, so it would be like Miami if the waves came up high. New Orleans would flood because they get lots of storms that carry water and the water falls and floods the town. So that is how those three cities would be more likely to flood.

  • DorrN-Sua
    3/24/2015 - 10:43 p.m.

    Because Miami, New York, and New Orleans are closest to the water and what ever state is closest to water has the most chance to get flooded because they are right next to the ocean.

  • CooperK-Sua
    3/24/2015 - 11:21 p.m.

    Antarctica is a very cold place. It has a lot of ice and snow. 98% of Antarctica is made of ice. Some scientists believe that some of the ice is melting. If this really happens it will probably flood in Miami, New York, and New Orleans. Those are some cities that could be flooded in the United States because those cities are closest to the oceans. If the ice melts many people could die and the cities could be destroyed. That would be bad! I think that these cities should be prepared if this does happen.

  • LiCausiM-Sua
    3/24/2015 - 11:26 p.m.

    Miami, and Orleans or more at risk of flooding then other U.S. Cities because they are closer to Antartica. They are at risk of having a flood because Antartica is starting to melt. Antartica is starting to melt because of the tempiture of the sun. People found out that Antartica was melting by going in the water and looking how thik the ice was. I hope that the flood dosnt happen and Antartica gets more ice.

  • HocogJ-Sua
    3/24/2015 - 11:51 p.m.

    They are more at risk because of the ice sheets melting. It is at more risk in these three places because they are more close to the water where the ice sheets are melting. This can effect peoples lives if their living in or by these places. Something else is that a few months ago the ice started melting half a mile under the ice. Also this is important because this can destroy lots of thing and it might effect peoples lives.

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