Australia’s Antarctic science programme is more critical than ever before because of the need to understand global environmental change, the Minister for the Environment and Water Resources, Mr Malcolm Turnbull MP, said today.

Launching Australia’s involvement in International Polar Year — an international programme of scientific research and observations in the Arctic and Antarctic — Mr Turnbull said scientific research had shown the polar regions are powerful players in the global climate system and are the regions of Earth most vulnerable to climate change.

“The Antarctic is a region of great climatic significance for Australia with the low pressure systems from the high latitudes around Antarctica bringing vital rain to our shores.

“The cold of Antarctica, including the sea ice which annually envelopes the continent, drives climatic and oceanographic processes. Any warming in Antarctica will affect the way the ‘conveyor belt’ moves water and, with it, heat around the globe.” Mr Turnbull said.

“Analysis of tiny air bubbles trapped in frozen ice taken from the Antarctic ice-cap is telling us about the atmosphere and associated temperature changes in the past. This information is helping us to predict likely future changes in temperature.”

“The extent and duration of winter sea ice around the continent is critically important to the life histories of many marine organisms, including Antarctic krill. Any change in the annual pattern of sea ice expansion and contraction will undoubtedly have an effect on the biological productivity of the ocean.

“Also, we don’t yet completely understand the effects of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on ocean processes.”

Mr Turnbull said Australia’s Antarctic scientific research had contributed significantly to international understanding of these critical systems and ecosystems.

“But there are still large gaps in our knowledge and many crucial questions to be answered to help us prepare for the climate change challenges ahead,” he said.

“The International Polar Year, the largest international polar research programme for 50 years, could not be better timed with global climate a key issue around the world.

“Australia, with a very strong programme of Antarctic research, looks forward to making a significant contribution to the International Polar Year particularly through the large marine science research programme that will run through 2007/2008,” he said.

Mr Turnbull said with its new air transport capability — Airbus flights between Hobart and Wilkins runway will begin later in 2007 to support the Australian Antarctic programme — Australia sits poised to play a leading role in big international Antarctic science into the future.

Australia is leading a number of international scientific endeavours during the IPY:

The ‘Census of Antarctic Marine Life’ being led by the Australian Antarctic Division will be the biggest marine biodiversity survey ever undertaken in Antarctica. So far 14 ships of Antarctic nations are committed to participating, and others are expected to join. The project will provide a new and robust benchmark against which to measure future change in the Southern Ocean.

Through the ‘Climate of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean’ project, Australia is coordinating a synoptic circumpolar snapshot of the physical environment of the Southern Ocean through collaborative oceanographic fieldwork. Australian work recently has shown that the rate of change in the deep waters — formerly thought to be the last place on Earth to see change — is occurring faster than anticipated. This work will enhance our understanding of the role of the Southern Ocean in past, present and future climate.

The ‘Aliens in Antarctica’ project, where Australia will lead an international research team, will examine how climate change might affect the establishment of invading organisms into the Antarctic. The 3-degree temperature rise suggested recently by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change could have a dramatic effect on the survival of seeds and spores inadvertently introduced to Australia’s sub-Antarctic islands (Heard Island and the McDonald Islands, and Macquarie Island) as well as to the Antarctic continent.

On the human front, ‘Taking the Polar Pulse’ is a study of health in the Antarctic during the IPY. Researchers from many Antarctic nations will focus on human health and well-being in polar regions and investigate the impacts of living in the total darkness of winter and in isolation for long periods.

Other studies led by Australian scientists will be looking at what role variability in solar emissions plays in our weather and climate: we will try to understand the geological evolution of the Gamburtsev Mountain range, lying underneath thousands of metres of ice in east Antarctica; and we will coordinate measurements of sea ice thickness and extent.

The creation of an International Antarctic Institute by a group of Universities with interests in Antarctic science and politics is an International Polar Year activity of a different kind. It sits at the University of Tasmania and will use the focus on Antarctica during IPY to build momentum for this bold international educational initiative.

The Royal Society of Victoria intends to mark IPY by taking two international expeditions of school students to Antarctica, to enthuse them in all that goes to make up Antarctica.

In addition to these activities in which Australians are playing a leading role, Australian scientists are involved in 46 other IPY projects, led by scientists from around the world.