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 continental 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 of whale and seal oil and fur. Since then, the fist-shaped continent has proven a treasure chest for scientists. They are trying to determine everything from the creation of the cosmos to how high seas will rise with global warming.

"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, in the middle of the chilly Antarctic summer, 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, biological quirks that potentially could lead to better medical treatments. And perhaps most of all, signs of unstoppable melting.

The journey was aboard a Chilean navy ship 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 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 at below 32. And while the sun rarely shines on the long Antarctic winters, nighttime never seems to fall on summer days.

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. If experts are right, and the West Antarctic ice sheet has started melting irreversibly, 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.

Often, scientists find something other than what they were looking for. 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 in the South Shetlands and the Antarctic Peninsula. Curious members of a penguin colony on Cape Legoupil watched.

"We're also learning about the real antiquity of the Earth," Spikings said, "and how (continents) were configured together a billion years ago, half a billion years ago, 300 million years ago." He added that the insights will help him understand Antarctica's key role in the jigsaw of ancient super continents. With names like Rodinia, Gondwana and Pangaea, scientists believe they were significant landmasses in Earth's history. They were periodically joined together through the movement of plates.

There is no local industry. Any pollution captured in the pristine ice and snow is from chemicals that traveled from afar, such as 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, causing 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, including one 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, 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 (68)
  • AL2001austinmahone
    2/25/2015 - 01:06 p.m.

    they are at more fisk for flooding beacuse they are cloosist to the water. If there is like an eatrh quake or hurrican they aredone son like the water is going to possable ingulf there states first

  • James2809
    2/25/2015 - 01:14 p.m.

    Scientists can find so many things in Antarctica. They can find how the land masses on Earth were a billion years old. Also they possibly find if life ever existed on Mars. New species could also be found in Antarctica. There are so many things that we can find in Antacrtica.

  • savannahe-And
    2/25/2015 - 03:36 p.m.

    Miami, New York, and New Orleans are more at risk of flooding that other United State cities because they are closer to the coast.

  • Kareena143
    2/25/2015 - 03:37 p.m.

    This article is very important because it could help us figure out our past, present, and future. For all we know there could be different species living in Antarctica and we wouldn't know it. I agree with the article when it says that Antarctica is like a "completely different world." There were species that they found that we could never imagine such as shrimp-like creatures and fishes that were more than complete! I believe that we can find out more and more about Antarctica that can help decide our future.

  • CodyD-Kra
    2/25/2015 - 03:53 p.m.

    I think that the search in Antarctica is great. It would awesome to learn how the Earth really was 100 million years ago. like where the continents were. The crazy ranges of temperatures there is weird. it can feel like a normal winter day in the northern states or it can be -32 degrees all in the same continent. I would love to go there and just see what it is like there.

  • KaitlynP-Kra
    2/25/2015 - 03:53 p.m.

    Miami, New York and New Orleans are more at risk of flooding than other cities because these cities are on coast which have water right within the cities.

  • CodyD-Kra
    2/25/2015 - 03:53 p.m.

    I think that the search in Antarctica is great. It would awesome to learn how the Earth really was 100 million years ago. like where the continents were. The crazy ranges of temperatures there is weird. it can feel like a normal winter day in the northern states or it can be -32 degrees all in the same continent. I would love to go there and just see what it is like there.

  • IzzieR-Kra
    2/25/2015 - 03:57 p.m.

    i think this article is very interesting because them seeing all the different stuff and discovering all the different stuff, like the ice and how thick it is and all that stuff.

  • tyresel-Orv
    2/25/2015 - 06:32 p.m.

    Something we should do to help is, for one whole month we should stop using anything that is causing the OZone layer to burn because if global warming continues to increase the melting process of Antarctica melting then we have a serious problem on our hands. It could cause the ocean sea level to rise. If the OZone layer could burn that fast then what's stopping it from burning anywhere else in the world?

  • Eriku2
    2/25/2015 - 06:42 p.m.

    This article is about antartica. anartica could be the key to earth's future and past. It can show us the past because ancient things could get trapped in ice. It can also tell us the future tides and water levels

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