Addressing sea ice impacts on Antarctic operations

Aerial view of the Aurora Australis in sea ice
Challenging sea ice conditions in East Antarctica have brought polar operators and scientists together to solve operational challenges (Photo: Dr Jan Lieser and Aerial Imaging Group)

The impact of changing sea ice conditions on Antarctic operators was the focus of an international workshop in Hobart in May.

The two day Antarctic Sea Ice Challenges Workshop, was convened by the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programmes (COMNAP) and jointly hosted by the Australian Antarctic Division and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC).

The workshop brought together 58 of the world’s Antarctic program managers and scientists, for the first time, to examine the latest scientific advice on the causes and likely future trends in sea ice cover, and to identify potential solutions.

COMNAP Executive Secretary Michelle Rogan-Finnemore said challenging sea ice conditions in some parts of Antarctica, including thicker and more extensive sea ice coverage, were affecting the delivery of Antarctic scientists, support personnel and supplies to Antarctic research facilities.

‘Innovative and pragmatic approaches are needed to solve these evolving challenges,’ she said.

Professor Tony Worby, CEO of the ACE CRC, said changes in sea ice conditions were largely driven by strengthening westerly winds around Antarctica, as a result of changes in atmospheric chemistry and interactions with other climate variability drivers. Local effects resulting from sea ice build-up around grounded icebergs were also part of the problem.

He said each of the past three years had broken the record for sea ice extent, creating a challenge for ships and in some cases causing a complete rethink of how Antarctic stations are resupplied. Australian Antarctic Division General Manager of Operations, Dr Rob Wooding, said that in the 2013-14 summer, for example, the Division had to refuel Mawson station by helicopter when thick sea ice prevented access to the station by ship. Similar problems are being encountered by French and Japanese expeditions.

‘The main purpose of this workshop was for national Antarctic programs and other operators in the Southern Ocean to speak with leading sea ice researchers and analysts about the challenges of changing patterns of sea ice distribution and how operators and experts could work together to respond to these challenges,’ Dr Wooding said.

‘These discussions focussed on improved sea ice charting and forecasting services to assist navigation.’

Professor Worby said sea ice thickness remains one of the hardest climate parameters to measure and monitor, although improving satellite technology is providing imagery that can be sent directly to ships, helping them choose the best possible route through the sea ice.

‘The use of autonomous underwater vehicles, equipped with upward-looking sonar and video is also providing new insides into the complex under-ice world of the Antarctic sea ice zone,’ he said.

The outcomes from the workshop will be published by COMNAP later this year.

Corporate Communications
Australian Antarctic Division