Antarctic project to study effects of climate change on coastal ecosystem

Prof Andrew McMinn at work aboard Aurora Australis
Prof Andrew McMinn at work aboard Aurora Australis
Expeditioners working on the sea ice with the Aurora Australis in the background

Tuesday 5 October 2004

Scientists will set up camp on Antarctic sea ice to study the effects of climate change on marine life in the area.

The project is an ongoing examination of the effects of climate change and one of the key activities of Australia's Antarctic program this season.

The project's manager, Associate Professor Andrew McMinn of the University of Tasmania, said that climate change was already having a significant impact in coastal areas around the world and that Antarctica was no exception.

"Not only are some ice shelves collapsing and the winter sea ice retreating but there are also major changes in the Antarctic marine ecosystem.

"Sea ice plays a critical role in Antarctic marine ecosystems. It hosts a vast quantity of microscopic algae (sea ice algae) that provide the food for krill and zooplankton and the larger animals and birds which feed on them.

Professor McMinn said that climate change was already reducing the time that sea ice was present in coastal areas.

"We suspect that this will have major impacts on all marine life. Not only will the amount of food change, but so will the type of food. This will lead to major changes in the ecosystem favouring different animal communities.

Professor McMinn's project is part of an ongoing, five-year study to investigate these changes.

His team will leave Hobart today aboard the Antarctic research vessel Aurora Australis.

The ship will be parked in the sea ice and scientists will establish a laboratory on the floating ice where they will measure changing amounts of sea ice algae and rates of photosynthesis.

"We will also investigate how well adapted these microscopic plants are to deal with the sorts of changes that climate change will throw at them," Professor McMinn said.

The team will initially remain on the sea ice for five days. While some scientists will return from Antarctica in November, a number will remain there for four months to continue these measurements from their base at Casey station.

"In particular, we want to see what happens in areas with different types and ages of sea ice cover. We expect this information will provide clues as to what will happen as climate change continues to reduce the amount of ice.

Professor McMinn said that the research team would be using methods and equipment designed and built in Tasmania.

"Our previous use of this equipment and our techniques in sea ice has made us world leaders in this type of environmental research.

Aurora Australis is scheduled to sail at 5pm today.