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Statistics put us on thin ice

Scientists and ice. If you had to choose one to invite to a party … you could be forgiven for deciding to ask the ice to come along, because you know it could absolutely come in handy later on in the evening.

That said, a culinary experiment in the kitchen might require an analytical mind, so the scientist could definitely be just as useful.

The two of them together in the same place, however, would likely dampen the party atmosphere, particularly if the conversation turned to how they know each other.

A group representing New Zealand scientists sent out a media release yesterday, reminding us that they are convening an emergency summit over the record low sea ice levels seen in Antarctica this year.

Antarctic sea ice is measuring about 20 per cent less than normal for this time of year – the missing ice would normally cover an area about 10 times the land area of New Zealand. Not surprising then that our scientists are eager to discuss the impacts of this event on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, highlighting the potential direct, and indirect, implications for New Zealand.

As the volume of Antarctic sea ice dips toward a record winter low, Antarctica New Zealand’s field support staff are monitoring and assessing conditions at Ross Island, which is off the McMurdo Sound coast. It lies within the boundaries of Ross Dependency, an area of Antarctica claimed by New Zealand 100 years ago.

Antarctica’s sea ice is in serious decline. The figures diligently recorded show it is tracking well below any of the winter maximum levels observed since satellite monitoring began during the late 1970s. That’s more than 45 years of data. We have all seen the global headlines. The loss of sea ice loss in the Ross Sea region is attributed to winds pushing the ice against the continent.

The scientists will meet in Wellington today before they head to Antarctica for the summer research season.

The statistics from research and subsequent data collation make for a startling read. Antarctica has lost more sea ice than has been lost during the past 30 years in the Arctic, and the thinner-than-usual sea ice caused disruptions in Antarctic operations for New Zealand and other countries last year. Thankfully, sea ice retreat will not disrupt this year’s research season. At Scott Base, the fast ice – which is attached to the land – formed early in the season and, unlike last year, has not been affected by winds pushing it out to sea. In 2022, Scott Base staff had to take the equipment onto the sea ice on foot for the first time ever, because the sea ice was deemed unsafe to drive vehicles on.

Some scientists are asking if a ‘new normal’ is emerging as the world continues to warm. The consequences could be far-reaching for Earth’s climate. Sea ice keeps the planet cooler by reflecting solar energy back into the atmosphere and insulating the ocean. Its formation also generates cold, salty water masses that drives the world’s ocean currents.

The summit will comprise an online discussion session among many different experts. Interested members of the international science community will no doubt be listening in. So should we.

Roger Parker
Roger Parker
Roger Parker is the Times-Age news director. In the Venn-diagram of his two great loves, news and sport, sports news is the sweet spot.

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