RiSCCY business

Biologists take samples of vegetation on Heard Island
Biologists sampling vegetation on Heard Island as part of the RiSCC program (Photo: Doug Thost)

At the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) Symposium on Antarctic Biology in Christchurch in September 1998 the Biological Investigations of Terrestrial Antarctic Ecosystems (BIOTAS) program was wound up after 15 years of international collaborative research. At that Symposium it was also decided that investigations on the impacts of global change on Antarctic and sub-antarctic terrestrial ecosystems and lakes should be the topic of a new international program. Thus the Regional Sensitivity to Climate Change in Terrestrial Ecosystems (RiSCC) program was born. After two planning meetings, one in Spain, the other in South Africa, the Science and Implementation Plans for the RiSCC program were developed. These were endorsed by SCAR in Tokyo 2000.

Within living memory, the Antarctic and subantarctic environments have shown marked responses to climate change. Air temperature and precipitation have changed dramatically over the last fifty years and these changes are likely to continue. Seasonal differences in the rates of temperature change have been observed on the Antarctic peninsula – autumn and winter temperatures increasing substantially more than those in spring and summer. Precipitation on subantarctic islands has declined markedly. Studies have shown direct and indirect responses by Antarctic plants and animals to these changes. The Antarctic and subantarctic provide an ideal focus for investigations on biological responses to climate change. The animals and plants that live there must cope with the changing environment and several factors make their value as research subjects precious and unique: their isolation, relative simplicity of ecosystem structure, the ease with which newly introduced organisms can be detected and that many of the organisms are living at the boundary of their range.

The principal aims of the RiSCC program are to firstly understand the interactions between the climate and the biodiversity and functioning of Antarctic terrestrial and lake ecosystems and secondly to predict regional sensitivity to the impacts of climate change. These aims will be achieved by:

  1. understanding what we currently have by identifying and quantifying differences in environments, and the biodiversity within and between ecosystems
  2. understanding what might happen by investigating the potential for ecosystem processes to respond to changes in climate
  3. defining which of the observed effects are due to climate change and partitioning those from the other key components of the ecosystems
  4. using new and existing data to provide a synthesis of the likely effects of climate change on Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems to contribute to their management and conservation
  5. keeping in touch with others in the international scientific community who seek to understand the implications of global changes.

From the RiSCC program studies we intend to produce an 'Antarctic Environmental Gradient'. This will use data collected from a range of sites at different latitudes and altitudes and be used as a model for future climate change. This should let us predict how individual species and communities along the gradient will respond to climate-change pressures.

The RiSCC program will run for 12 years. Although it is a modern program, investigations that will be used to provide some of the historical backdrop for this program date back to the earliest surveys of Antarctic plants. We intend to coordinate old as well as recently acquired data through the Australian Antarctic Data Centre. This program is off to a flying start with several nations already undertaking RiSCC-related activities, and the fieldwork 'officially' starting in the 2000-01 summer with, among other activities, multinational investigations on Heard Island.

Harvey Marchant
Biology Program Leader,
Australian Antarctic Division