NZ scientists call for urgent policy to address Antarctic threats

New Zealand’s Antarctic scientists convening an “emergency summit” on record low levels of Antarctic sea ice have called for urgent action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

In the consensus statement issued after Tuesday’s online conference, a dozen of NZ’s leading biophysical and earth experts raised their concerns about declining sea ice due to warming temperatures in the atmosphere and Southern Ocean.

The statement calls for urgent policy action and a “dramatic reduction in greenhouse gas emissions” by New Zealand. It also comes a week out from NZ’s national election.

Sea ice and icebergs float as seen from nasa's operation icebridge research aircraft off the coast of the antarctic peninsula region, on november 3, 2017, above antarctica. Nasa's operation icebridge has been studying how polar ice has evolved over the past nine years and is currently flying a set of nine-hour research flights over west antarctica to monitor ice loss aboard a retrofitted 1966 lockheed p-3 aircraft. According to nasa, the current mission targets 'sea ice in the bellingshausen and weddell seas and glaciers in the antarctic peninsula and along the english and bryan coasts. ' researchers have used the icebridge data to observe that the west antarctic ice sheet may be in a state of irreversible decline directly contributing to rising sea levels. The national climate assessment, a study produced every 4 years by scientists from 13 federal agencies of the u. S. Government, released a stark report november 2 stating that global temperature rise over the past 115 years has been primarily caused by 'human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases'.
Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Polls point to a change in the nation’s leadership from the left-leaning Labour Party to a right-leaning government, which would be led by the major National Party. The Nationals have affirmed NZ’s climate commitments but propose different mechanisms to achieve them.

Dr Craig Stevens is an oceanographer at the University of Auckland Waipapa Taumata Rau, NZ’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), and one of the chief organisers of the emergency summit. He told Cosmos the summit was spurred by signs throughout 2023 that Antarctic sea ice would reach a new record low.

Convening the summit before researchers go into the field for research later this month was also essential, but meant the statement would be wedged between September’s confirmation of the concerning sea ice decline and NZ’s election.

“We would have liked to have not tied it up too closely to the election,” Stevens says.

“Partly because we wouldn’t get media traction locally because they’d be on to [covering] other things.

“But… this is about the most interest anyone’s shown in any sort of climate or environment-related question throughout the time. I feel like, to some extent, we’ve accidentally filled a bit of a vacuum here.”

Satellite imagery recently recorded a record low winter sea ice maximum surrounding Antarctica – a deficit of 1.289 million km2 compared to 2022. That’s enough ice to fill New Zealand more than four times over.

Australian researchers Ariaan Purich and Edward Doddridge recently suggested the record low may mark a ‘regime shift’ within the Antarctic system. The summit debated whether to adopt references to this in the final statement but was ultimately more cautious, saying “some studies suggest[s] there will be lasting changes in how the Southern Ocean behaves”.

Stevens says the decision to omit more definitive reference to the Australian research doesn’t dismiss the possibility of regime change, but that a single paper is insufficient to draw a solid conclusion.

“I think that [debate] was a good example of sort of scientific consensus on short timescales in process, I think the perspective of the team that came together was that the description in the paper was possible, but we weren’t certain enough,” he says.

“But we’re entirely happy with that sort of [regime change] language as potentially what we’re on the brink of.”

Across the Tasman, Antarctic science will be put in the spotlight when an Australian senate inquiry into Australian Antarctic Division funding is held on Wednesday and Thursday. It follows recent revelations the major scientific mission was pursuing efforts to cut a sixth of its operating budget, and potentially 56 established projects and research activities.

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