Top Antarctic scientists warn NZ 'not ready' for worst as climate changes

US oceanographer Chuck Kennicutt (left) and Professor Gary Wilson (Right)

Two top US Antarctic scientists warn New Zealand is "not ready" for the worst as ice shelves and sea ice in Antarctica retreat and the climate changes.

Otago University Professor Gary Wilson told TV3's Frontline that the last time the world had CO2 levels as high as today, the West Antarctic ice shelf collapsed; a shelf containing 20m-worth of sea level rise. So "we know the end game, we just don't how fast it might happen," Prof Willson says.  "We're certainly heading into the danger level".

If global temperature increases continue along the same path as now, we will see more ice melt and the impact on Antarctica will be "much worse"

That impacts the New Zealand economy, which is dependent on ocean and climate conditions driven by Antarctica, Prof Wilson says.

Oceanographer Chuck Kennicutt says China, Russia and other countries have a "clear eye" on oil, gas and fisheries in Antarctica and "it's not clear" whether the Antarctic Treaty will protect the continent from exploitation


RAW DATA: The Nation transcript: Lisa Owen talks to US oceanographer Chuck Kennicutt and Professor Gary Wilson

Lisa Owen: I’m going to come to you first Chuck, let’s flesh out why this matters. What is Antarctica doing for the rest of the globe?

Chuck Kennicutt: To put it simply Antarctica serves a critical role in the earth’s system and this is related mainly to the energy, the heat but also the water budget. So in areas like Antarctica that change, they affect the entire global system and this is seen through melting of ice, warming of sea water, changing of weather and also the ozone hole which has led to effects that we see around the globe.

So basically it’s the engine room?

Yes

So in light of that, the IPCC says that we’re not cutting greenhouse gas emissions fast enough to keep temperature rises below 2 degrees so what would that mean for Antarctica?

Well, what we see and these predictions are based on the best scientific knowledge that we have today. And what we understand is that those types of temperature rises will continue not only in the trends that we already have seen but accelerate them. So there’ll be more melting of ice, there’ll be more rising of ocean water temperatures and air temperatures so we can very accurately predict now that continuing along the same path that we’ve been following will simply make the effects that we see much worse into the future.

So what are you seeing now in terms of changes?

Well what we see is loss of sea ice which is generally related to a rise in sea level globally, we see the disintegration of ice shelves, retreat of glaciers we see across the globe and also shifts in the populations of various species so it’s a real wide range of impacts across the spectrum of the physical and living environment.

So it’s the West Antarctic Ice Shelf that’s making scientists particularly concerned isn’t it? Why is that?

That’s an interesting question and what leads to that is most of the West Antarctic Ice Shelf is actually below sea level so it means that the ice is below the surface of the water and it raises a lot of questions. And we know over geologic history that that ice shelf has completely disintegrated and the question is, is that the most vulnerable part of Antarctica? As we heard there’s about 60 metres of sea level rise that potentially would happen if all of Antarctica melted and about 20 metres of that is in West Antarctica.

And what are the other consequences of that, you know, does it dilute a nutrient-rich ocean, what happens?

It fundamentally changes the heat and energy balance of the planet. The most direct connection though is the actual supply of water into the ocean. Typically you see particularly around Auckland and other major cities worldwide, they’re very close to the water so very small, literally feet, metres rise of sea level will inundate most of the major cities worldwide.

That’s the perfect opportunity to bring Gary into the conversation – what impact will it have directly on New Zealand then, starting with say the weather here?

Gary Wilson: Well I think the first point is to just go back and say Antarctica might seem like this place on the bottom of the planet but yes, it’s connected directly to here so the Antarctic Circumpolar Current washes across southern New Zealand and all the ocean fronts are kind of stacked up in the New Zealand part of the world.

So what does that mean for us – rainfall you’re talking about here?

That’s just in the ocean but when it comes to the atmosphere the same is true. That the atmosphere is subdivided so you’ve got a cold polar cell of circulation around Antarctica and that boundary and the westerly wind system comes across New Zealand and the westerly winds bring our rainfall, certainly in the South Island. But that’s the major contributor to rainfall in the South Island.

So our economy – fishing, farming, tourism – how dependent is all of this on Antarctica?

I mean most of it’s dependent on primary industries so it’s all dependent on the environment and it’s all dependent on ocean and climate and in the long term those things are connected to what’s driven out of Antarctica. In the short-term, we see some impact from the north as well and the interaction between the warm north and the cold south but in the long term it’s the Antarctic that’s driving those longer term trends.

What will those trends be? We talk about one-in-one hundred year storms – that will become potentially a storm a year? What are the consequences?

I think the contribution from Antarctica can be considered something of a baseline so if you’re raising sea level, yes you might see incremental rises in sea level of millimetres per year and centimetres per decade but as you increase the sea level the storm intensity and the ability of the storm to inundate coastal areas of course is intensified. So that’s, the two go hand in hand really.

So we know that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet collapsed before so it’s conceivable it could happen again. What is the best scientific guess for if, and when that might happen again?

Well rather than guessing if we look back in geological time, what we know is that the last time the Earth had a CO2 level of about 400 parts per million in the atmosphere, then that was the end solution of a prolonged earth in that state, was that the West Antarctic ice sheet retreated. In a couple of years we’re in 400 parts per million, the question then is –

So we’re heading into the danger level is what you’re saying?

We’re certainly heading into the danger level but the question is what’s the pathway to get there? Are we going to see incremental melting and incremental increase in the climate warming if you like or are there going to steps and changes and thresholds and tipping points in that so that it kind of goes up in jerky movements rather than just the straight line condition and that’s the unanswered question. What’s that going to look like.

So we have about a hundred thousand New Zealanders who are living within I think it’s three metres of the coastline and we’ve got a lot of low-lying cities, all our airports seem to be right next to the ocean. Even this week when we had a storm, a number of the roads were covered in water because they’re right next to the ocean so are we ready for the worst?

Well the short answer is no. We’re not ready. But the real question is how do we get ready? And that’s where the research comes in. It’s a question of you know, what are the timeframes on this change, what can we work out about how fast this change is going to happen. We kind of know the end game, we don’t know the rates of getting there. So really that’s where the research comes in. I’d like to think that over the next, 10, 20 years we can actually get some solid research in to be able to develop the policies and plans around it.

But what can we do now from what we know now?

I mean there’s two answers to that. And one is you know one is can we mitigate this or are we planning to adapt and I guess we’re planning to adapt. But at some point we probably want the world to take more notice because we’re a pretty small emitter here and really New Zealand can play on the international research stage and point out what it is that’s so important about this part of the world and these currents that we’re talking about, the westerly winds and what does that mean globally, so that globally people take a bit more attention, pay some attention

I just want to pick up on what you said there, you said we’re moving to adaption. So are we talking about life behind sea walls or do we actually need to make some radical changes like saying leave your car at home two days a week, cap dairying or are we just accepting this is a fait accompli and we’re just working with it.

Well, yeah, that’s an interesting question. I mean –

What do you think though?

We’re certainly committed to a degree of change. We’re certainly committed to some change at this point so it’s not good enough to just say we can now mitigate the change because CO2 levels haven’t actually leveled out in the atmosphere yet. They’re climbing faster than ever. So we’re certainly committed to seeing some change so we’re going to have to do some adapting. We’re not going to be able to maintain some of these coastal infrastructures and we’re going to have to think about how we use our land.

So what do you think of that Chuck? We’re accepting it, we’re just going to tinker?

Well essentially what Gary is saying, if we do not act we are committed to the changes not only that we’re seeing but as I mentioned accelerating changes and the only recourse at that point will be adaption, which as you say, will be moving away from coastal areas, sea walls, a number of ways of addressing the change in climate and so it really becomes a matter of public will. And are we willing to do things that really impact our daily lives but solve these problems in the long term and that’s really I think the political debate that’s going on now.

I want to pick up on willingness in the context that we know one of the biggest drivers of our problems here is economic growth. We’re getting millions of people out of poverty around the world, through development, we’re feeding them our dairy products at a massive rate, how do we balance that tension between slowing climate change and bringing people’s lot up?

There’s two assumptions there. One is that economic growth is only realised at the cost of environmental impact and I think that’s a sort of false bargain. And so the question is, is future growth going to follow the same trajectory that past growth has. A lot of the technologies we currently use were really invented in the 1950s, 1960s and as we go forward it’s not necessarily the case that future economic growth is going to follow using these same technologies and there’s a lot of effort now to really reduce the per capita consumption of energy which is the fundamental currency which drives climate change. And if those technologies are put into place you can have both economic growth at the same time as protecting the environment. So I don’t think you necessarily have to sell your future simply to have to raise the level of the economy worldwide.

I want to just touch on another issue, which is resources. We know that there’s a treaty aimed at protecting Antarctica but isn’t one of the big issues when it comes to this part of the world, mining and resources and a potential rush for those goodies?

That’s another very good question. The Antarctic Treaty has been in force for about 50 years, a little over 50 years and New Zealand has been a very active member in making sure that the Antarctic is managed in a ways, manner based on science. But going forward though is as we have this increasing demand for resources worldwide, will the Antarctic Treaty be stable enough to be able to manage those types of changes and it’s not clear.

The Chinese have already said that they’re looking at science there in order to, and this is a quote from the president, take advantage of ocean and polar resources. That sounds like more than just gathering information?

Yes, and that’s correct. If you look at the history of Antarctica, science is only one aspect of why people are in Antarctica. It’s also geopolitical as well as resource based and there’s many countries out there – China, including Russia – who have a clear eye on the natural resources not only oil and gas, fisheries and bio-prospecting and the use of other resources. So again, it comes back to the question of whether this international agreement called the Antarctic Treaty will be able to mediate those types of pressures going into the future.

 

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