Hydrology, Cryosphere & Earth Surface News

Priorities for Antarctic Research: Glaciers, Genomes, and Cosmic Waves

The next decade of research should focus on the need to understand the changing Antarctic environment and how organisms adapt to it, a high-level report says.


Understanding how melting sea ice contributes to sea level rise, learning how organisms evolve and adapt to changing environments, and using Antarctica’s unique environment to study cosmic wave background radiation should be top research goals for Antarctic and Southern Ocean science. So says a report released earlier this week by the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NAS).

“Change in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean has global ramifications for sea level rise,” explained Robin Bell, a professor of geology and geophysics at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York and cochair of the report committee. “There are also key records of past change that inform our understanding of change in the future,” she told Eos.

A Strategic Vision for NSF Investments in Antarctic and Southern Ocean Research—which was commissioned by the National Science Foundation—emphasizes the need to study how loss of glacier mass affects sea level rise, to research how the genomes of organisms change with shifting environmental conditions, and to further understand the universe’s “fossil light”—the cosmic microwave background that is more easily detected in the clear Antarctic skies.

The report maps out strategies to achieve these research goals over the next 10 years.

The report suggests studying how Antarctica’s ice sheets are changing now and also examining new ice cores and sediment samples to understand how the ice sheets changed in the past. By sequencing genomes of species living in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, scientists can begin to understand how living things are adapting to the changing environment, the report says.  In addition, by installing new telescopes in the Antarctic’s dry, stable atmosphere, scientists can investigate the universe’s earliest moments, the report says.

The recommendations were developed following input from more than 450 scientists in 10 meetings in the United States and around the world and in a virtual town hall, Bell said.

The report also advocates for expanded access to remote areas, acquiring new heavy icebreakers for polar research, improved technology for data transmission, and a more open system of sharing and communicating data.

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2015), Priorities for Antarctic research: Glaciers, genomes, and cosmic waves, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO034409. Published on 14 August 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0