Antarctic research: a collaborative model

Many years ago I was invited to spend a short period working in a biological research laboratory in the USA. I was asked by my host to be sure the laboratory door was locked whenever I was the last one to leave because, he told me, other researchers in the building had less grant money than he and he wasn’t about to share any of his equipment with them! From my then viewpoint — a quaintly-funded but exhilarating research laboratory at the University of London — I found his attitude quite dispiriting. I still do today.

A striking feature of Antarctic scientific researchers is their readiness to collaborate, co-operate and share; the fragile and fickle flower that is absent in so much of science is, thankfully, a hallmark of Antarctic science. The former Governor of Tasmania, Sir Guy Green, in the inaugural Phillip Law Lecture in 2002 pointed to some special features of Antarctic science and its practitioners. With respect to the all-too-frequent practice of attacking the scientist rather than his/her theory he notes: ‘In strong and refreshing contrast Antarctic science … is still being conducted and debated in accordance with the traditional norms of scientific discourse. Whilst Antarctic scientists are as protective and concerned about the environment and its biota as anyone else and whilst there are vigorously debated differences of opinion between Antarctic scientists about environmental issues, the personal attacks and low-grade debate which characterise environmental discussion elsewhere … are completely alien to the atmosphere in which Antarctic science is conducted.'

Perhaps it is the underpinning ethos of the Antarctic Treaty that does it, perhaps it is the role that SCAR (the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research) has played in coordinating large-scale research in Antarctica, or perhaps it is the naturally-forming camaraderie and respect that develops amongst people who work in harsh and dangerous environments. Whatever it is, we have good reason to be thankful because the beneficiary of it is our understanding of the way the Antarctic works, and how it is integral to so much that happens in the rest of the world. Given its size and the small number of researchers who work there, it is truly astonishing just how much we now know about this vast region of the earth. The story that is unfolding is as compelling as the deeds and exploits of those who, a century ago, prepared the way for us today. Like the best fairy tales, this one also starts a long time ago.

Until about 140 million years ago Antarctica was nestled in the arms of South America, Africa, India, and Australia in the super-continent called Gondwanaland. Its climate was cool-temperate; equable enough for plants and animals to thrive. Antarctica would have looked much as western Tasmania does today — the little garden in the Australian Antarctic Division headquarters has been planted with the modern relatives of species we know existed then. Marsupial mammals, spreading southwards from South America, reached Australia via Antarctica — their fossils have been found in the Antarctic Peninsula. Gradually the southern continents started to drift northwards and Antarctica became isolated and exposed to new forces. The widening sea around its shores, and the spin of the Earth on its axis, caused a strong current — the Antarctic Circumpolar Current — to further isolate it from the more northern and temperate influences that nurtured its flora and fauna. And so it cooled. By about 37 million years ago a permanent ice cap had formed, and the waters surrounding it had become even colder. Luxuriant flora and fauna all but disappeared. The waters swirling around the continent, made biologically rich by up-welling nutrients brought aloft from the abyssal depths by currents returning southwards from their long circuit around the globe, sported a complex and ecologically diverse flora and fauna upon which specially adapted species prospered.

A thin soup of microscopic plants and animals sits at the head of a great feeding table that supports a complex web of animals including the largest that have ever existed. The ocean is so productive that it may be imagined as a high interest-bearing bank account, where a dollar deposited in its nutritious waters grows almost instantaneously to two, then four, eight etc. As each new dollar emerges it is snapped up and put to use by a myriad of hungry mouths to drive a burgeoning marine economy. It may be cold but the high-latitude Southern Ocean is mightily productive!

An issue that is starting to engage the minds of oceanographers is that the strength of the currents returning to Antarctica appears to be waning. If this continues to be the case, and the deep nutrients are returned to the sunlight zone in diminishing amounts, the ocean’s productivity will start to decline. The factors causing this change in current flow are to do with increased rainfall in the mid-latitudes resulting from global climate change but knowing this does not dispel the concern. We are continuing our observations on this most ominous development.

The interrelationships between the cold, the ice, the ocean and the atmosphere above the ocean are as complex as their relationships with the biological world beneath it. The whole system is precisely that — a system in which the many parts are intricately engaged with every other part, as are the cogs and escapements in a watch. In the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystem CRC we are examining the effects of variation in the physical environment on biological productivity and sustainability. Through the development of so-called coupled models we are putting together the bits of the puzzle regarding the way in which ice, water and atmosphere interact with one another and collectively contribute to the climate of the southern hemisphere. In a region of the Earth where there are few researchers able to collect data on the physical environment our observations on Antarctica’s role in climate are extremely important.

It is only through working with others that this story is taking shape. Through collaboration and cooperation we are able to bring the best researchers together to tackle what are emerging as some of the greatest challenges facing humankind. When we leave the laboratory at night we are happy to leave the door open, in the hope that we can entice some new collaborators to come in and work with us.

Michael Stoddart,

Chief Scientist, AAD