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Invest in Geoscience Research to Protect Polar Regions, Speakers Urge Capitol Hill Audience

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Scientists watch as their ship cuts a path through Arctic sea ice during the NASA ICESCAPE investigation to study how changing conditions in the Arctic affect the ocean's chemistry and ecosystems. | NASA/Kathryn Hansen

The Earth's polar regions are in peril as a result of climate change, speakers cautioned at a 16 June briefing on Capitol Hill, and solving the problem requires greater support for geoscience research.

The Congressional briefing, "Living at the Extremes: Geoscience Research at the Coolest Places on Earth," planned by AAAS in collaboration with the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in celebration of National Oceans Month, explored the implications that the Earth's poles have for our natural environment, oceans, and national security. In an effort to raise awareness of the urgency of changes at the poles, AAAS and the AGU also teamed up to offer a public screening of the award-winning film, Antarctica: On the Edge, on the evening before the Hill briefing.

The diverse panel of experts who participated in the briefing — including scientists, artists, policymakers, and former astronauts — emphasized the need for understanding changes taking place in the Arctic and Antarctic regions and for investing in geoscience research on a sustained basis, including in tools to detect and track climate change and to assess potential impacts.

"Our changing climate poses a serious risk to stability in [the polar regions]," said Christine McEntee, AGU's executive director and chief executive officer, during her welcoming remarks at the briefing. "Threats to Earth and space science funding are hindering our ability to support the kinds of research that helps us understand these forces of nature and their impact on our lives."

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Kathryn Sullivan (above) and Sheldon Whitehouse | AAAS

Species that live in these regions, such as krill and salmon, play a critical role in supporting global marine ecosystems, said Kathryn Sullivan, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA's Administrator. She also highlighted these regions' impact on global weather patterns. "All of our weather is very much linked to what is happening in our polar regions," Sullivan said. "The loss of sea ice in the Arctic and changes to heat storage will lead to changes in weather patterns that could bring extreme heat and cold events to the continental United States similar to those seen in recent years, and possibly even more intense."

Scientific observations show that in the Arctic, warming temperatures have led to a 75% loss in sea ice volume since the 1980s, and recent reports suggest the Arctic Ocean will be nearly free of summer sea ice by 2050, said Sullivan. Meanwhile, in Antarctica, the water being added to the ocean from the collapse of ice shelves continues to contribute to rising sea levels, she said.

The speakers discussed a broad array of signals coming from our oceans that indicate significant global climate change, including at the poles, is taking place already.

"There are warnings," said U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). "Narragansett Bay, near to home for me, is up three to four degrees mean water temperature just in the last 40 years."  

"My state is ground zero for this," emphasized U.S. Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, and he added that 75% of the population lives along the coast, and the ocean in the southern part of the state has risen eight inches over the last four years. "Miami Beach is the bull's eye."

The call to invest in geosciences research comes at a time when funding for this field is under attack. According to Matthew Hourihan, director of the AAAS R&D Budget and Policy Program, current legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives would reduce support for the National Science Foundation's geosciences directorate by approximately 16 percent in fiscal year 2016, compared with current levels, while NASA's Earth Sciences program would receive a 5% funding cut.

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Bill Nelson | AAAS

Participation in multilateral and multinational partnerships, such as the Arctic Council and the Antarctic Treaty System, is also necessary to deepen our understanding of both polar regions and show the value in investing in geoscience research, said Sullivan.

Other speakers at the briefing included award-winning conservationist Jim Toomey, who created the comic strip Sherman's Lagoon, filmmaker Jon Bowermaster, an award-winning writer and filmmaker recently named one of a dozen Ocean Heroes by the National Geographic Society, and Luke Creswell, who co-directed the award-winning large-format films Wild Ocean and The Last Reef: Cities Beneath The Sea. A panel discussion including Toomey, Bowermaster and Creswell was moderated by Science's Editor-in-Chief, Marcia McNutt.

Also in celebration of National Oceans Month, AAAS on 15 June took part in a special GEO Distinguished Lecture at the National Science Foundation, where the importance of science communication related to geosciences research was emphasized. Remarks were offered by Rush Holt, AAAS CEO executive publisher of the Science family of journals, who moderated a discussion including Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-California) as well as film director Jon Bowermaster and others. The public screening of Bowermaster's documentary, Antarctica: On the Edge, took place the same day at AAAS headquarters.

Climate Change, Geopolitical Pressures Threaten Antarctica

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Antarctica - On The Edge Trailer from Luke Ployhar on Vimeo.

Antarctica, a primary driver of Earth's climate system, may appear indomitable, with its three-mile thick ice and otherworldly icebergs, but it is increasingly threatened by global warming, tourism, and geopolitical pressures, speakers said at the 15 June AAAS screening of the film, Antarctica: On the Edge.

The southernmost continent doubles in size during its winter season, and as Antarctic ice expands and contracts, it drives the circulation of ocean currents, redistributes the sun's heat, and regulates global climate, narrator Tilda Swinton explains in the film. As the Earth continues to warm, Antarctica, which was a tropical forest some 100 million years ago, holds important clues to the planet's future, according film director and National Geographic Explorer Jon Bowermaster. He offered remarks at the AAAS screening, along with researchers Robin E. Bell and Brendan P. Kelly.

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From left, Rush Holt, Jon Bowermaster, Robin Bell, and Brendan Kelly | AAAS

Since 1961, the Antarctic Treaty, now with 52 signers, has ensured that Antarctica can be used only for peaceful purposes such as scientific research, and not for military or commercial activities such as energy extraction. The Treaty was later extended until mid-century, but Bowermaster noted that some countries already seem to be jockeying for control of Antarctica. Chinese and Australian experts recently told a New York Times reporter, for example, that China's expanded Antarctic facilities may be "another sign that China is positioning itself to take advantage of the continent's resource potential when the treaty expires in 2048, or in the event that it is ripped up before."

Tourism represents another threat to Antarctica. The treacherous, icy waters around Antarctica are traveled by some 40,000 tourists per year, Bowermaster noted. Tour vendors such as Polar Cruises advertise excursions through the unpredictable Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula, where eco-tourists can "explore bays, channels, and landings" and "visit penguin rookeries, scout for humpback and minke whales, and search for a number of the southern seal species." Tourist boats cannot actually land on the continent, Bowermaster said, but concerns have been raised about what would happen if a vessel full of tourists hit an iceberg or ran into other trouble.

Antarctica's vulnerability to climate change has also become increasingly clear, said Robin Bell of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who studies how ice sheets change. Bell, a Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Research Professor, said that three key measurements have confirmed the change to Antarctica: Ice levels are dropping, ice is moving more quickly, and ice is "losing weight," or mass. In 2002, scientists were astonished to see the rapid collapse of Antarctica's Larsen B Ice Shelf, which disintegrated almost entirely between 31 January and 13 April. Then in 2008, an area the size of Manhattan broke off the Wilkins Ice Sheet.

If all of the ice covering Antarctica melted, Bowermaster's film reports, "oceans worldwide would rise by more than 200 feet."  Bell noted that water levels around Washington, D.C., have already increased significantly during her lifetime. "This is happening right here, in our backyard," she said.

Meanwhile, populations of certain species of Antarctic penguins such as the Adélie are dwindling, and Antarctic krill — the tiny crustaceans that feed whales and many other animals — are also on the decline.

Brendan Kelly, chief scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, noted that the warming planet has also had dire effects on the Arctic, which unlike Antarctica, is home to 4 million permanent residents. Native peoples in the Arctic "are on the leading edge of climate change," he said. "The ice is melting, and each bit of ice that melts causes an acceleration of that process." Sea ice reflects most of the sun's energy, he explained, whereas the open ocean absorbs more energy, and thus the disappearance of sea ice triggers even more warming, in a positive-feedback loop called albedo.

AAAS CEO Rush Holt said that the United States needs to do more to slow the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases related to human activities such as fossil-fuel burning. "We used to get it," said Holt, noting that the first official climate-change warning to a U.S. president took place 50 years ago, on 5 November 1965. "Scientists learned more and more, and then a few years ago, this growing consensus about climate change turned around — I would contend because of a deliberation campaign of misinformation. Yet, it is clear that the climate is changing, primarily because of human actions, and in ways that are costly and deadly."

[Credit for associated teaser image: Flickr/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center]

Authors

Natasha D. Pinol

Senior Communications Officer

Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs