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Durham University

Department of Geography

News Archive

Antarctica's Role in Climate Change

(26 November 2015)

Antarctica: Explorers, Heroes, Scientists

The group of scientists within the Department of Geography at Durham collect data from across Antarctica, both offshore and onshore and from inland areas and coastal regions. They use this information to build computer models to show how Antarctica’s climate and ice sheet has changed in the past, and, crucially, how it is likely to change in the future.

Their data have helped quantify how much Antarctica is contributing to sea level rise and that the rate at which this is happening is increasing.

Dr Pippa Whitehouse, a Research Fellow and member of the research team, explained: "We have records, going back over the last century, which show that the rate of sea level has been increasing. We also know that this was largely due to the melting of glaciers in the mountain regions. Over time, these glaciers are getting smaller and smaller and that supply of ice is pretty much going to disappear.

"Knowing how Greenland and Antarctica behave is going to be very important for how sea level changes in the future".

Where Antarctica was once a great unknown territory at the edge of the world, modern technologies now allow scientists to create maps not only of the surface of Antarctica, but also of its hidden terrain beneath the ice.

The team at Durham, working with colleagues in the British Antarctic Survey, use techniques such as satellite imagery, field measurements and sampling, and ice sheet modelling to understand how the ice sheet is changing.

"We are covering a whole a range of timescales to build a full picture of what has happened already and what we can expect in the future", said Professor Chris Stokes from the Department of Geography.

"One of the great things about the Antarctic ice sheet is the thickness which means that the ice at the very bottom is extremely old. This allows us to study past atmospheres and changes by, for example, sampling the ice and air bubbles within it. Analysis of past data shows a strong link between temperatures and CO2 levels which is a worrying trend with carbon dioxide levels now at almost twice the level they were in the past".

Future research in Antarctica will help refine our understanding of what aspects of climate change, such as rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, or rising ocean temperatures, cause the greatest changes in the area.

Professor Mike Bentley, from the Department of Geography at Durham, said: "The big questions we’re studying in Antarctica really matter to all of us as the past holds the key to understanding future climate change.

"The ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica are a major contributor to sea-level rise, and many studies suggest they will soon overtake contributions from melt of small glaciers. But the processes affecting ice sheets, and the way sea-level itself changes differently in different places, are very complex.

"In order for us to understand these processes, and how they will impact on coastal communities we need a combination of field data, modelling, and interaction between scientists and social scientists which is what we are aiming to do at Durham".

The work of the scientists is now featured in an exhibition at Durham University’s Palace Green Library, called Antarctica: Explorers, Heroes, Scientists.

View our Antarctica image gallery to see the research team in action.