SAEF Goes South

A team of SAEF researchers are today headed south from Hobart to Casey Station in Antarctica to undertake the program’s first season of fieldwork.

Heading South

Getting the green light for this expedition has involved years of planning, complex logistics, permit approvals, health checks, remote survival training and finally, two weeks’ of quarantine in Hobart.

The team are heading to a continent whose future is shrouded in uncertainty. If the global community is unable to achieve the Paris Agreement target of keeping temperature rise below 1.5 – 2°C, Antarctica could suffer devastating consequences with global impacts. These researchers are part of Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future (SAEF), a program that seeks to create a picture of the past, present and future change occurring across the Antarctic region. New insights generated through their research will inform policy action to ensure it remains the stunning and unique place it is today.

“Our work as part of SAEF will help to understand the impacts of these climatic changes on terrestrial ecosystems and also seek out management strategies that will help to mitigate the damage and preserve Antarctica’s biodiversity for the future”

— Distinguished Professor Sharon Robinson, SAEF’s Deputy Director, Science Implementation

Distinguished Professor Sharon Robinson, SAEF’s Deputy Director, Science Implementation – and an expert in Antarctic moss – said it is incredibly exciting that the program’s first field season is about to begin.

“I am thrilled to be heading south to Casey Station. The Windmill Islands’ region has some of the best moss beds in East Antarctica with lush turfs of glorious green that stand out against the icy surrounds. But we know they are suffering the consequences of ozone depletion and global heating,”

“Our work as part of SAEF will help to understand the impacts of these climatic changes on terrestrial ecosystems and also seek out management strategies that will help to mitigate the damage and preserve Antarctica’s biodiversity for the future. While I first visited the region 21 years ago, I’m also especially excited to be going with a team of young, enthusiastic scientists – the next generation of Antarctic researchers.”


Building a picture of Vanderford Glacier

The team going south will work on four interrelated areas of science. Dr Felicity McCormack and Dr Richard Jones are headed to the Vanderford Glacier, which made news recently when researchers on board Australia’s new icebreaker vessel, the RSV Nuyina, discovered an underwater canyon in the ocean bathymetry. A few hours south from Casey Station, this glacier is connected to the Aurora Subglacial Basin, a region that is rapidly thinning and contributing to sea level rise. As the ocean warms, the Vanderford Glacier is at risk of rapid retreat – with the potential to contribute to multiple metres of sea level rise. Felicity and Richard are hoping to spend around two weeks at Browning Peninsula, which is adjacent to the Vanderford Glacier, collecting rock samples. This is a seemingly simple task – until you consider that Felicity and Richard will be hiking along the peninsula collecting rocks which range in size from a grapefruit to a watermelon and carrying them back to base camp. In all, they expect to return with up to 300kgs.

The payoff for their efforts is the window into the past that these rocks can reveal. They will be used to build a picture of how the Vanderford Glacier has retreated and advanced over time as changes have occurred in the climate – and to predict how future warming will impact the glacier. These hidden insights lie in the varied concentrations of chemical isotopes within the rock. Back in the lab, these can be analysed to tell us how long the rocks have been exposed to cosmic rays (radiation from space) and when they were covered in ice.

Monitoring the moss

Meanwhile, Distinguished Professor Sharon Robinson, PhD Student Krystal Randall and Research Assistant Georgia Watson will study the moss beds. Usually, when you come across moss in Antarctica, it’s quite small and singular, but around Casey Station there are moss beds that are around 50 m wide with dense moss that is up to 500 years old. It’s some of the best moss on the entire continent. Sharon has been leading a project to monitor these moss beds since 2000. By taking photos and samples approximately every five years, she and her team have garnered a myriad of insights into how the moss is changing over time.

In one of the first examples of species change on the continent, over the past 20 years they have found that as the moss beds have become drier, one species that can tolerate being submerged underwater (Schistidium antarctica), is being encroached upon by dry-loving species (Ceratodon purpureus and Bryum pseudotriquetrum). This suggests there is less water available which is crucial for the mosses to grow and remain healthy. While some data are visible to the naked eye – such as whether the moss is green (healthy), red (under stress) or grey (dead) – other data becomes available using newer technologies. Together, with drone pilots, Emiliano Cimoli and Ryan Haynes from the University of Tasmania, the moss team will use drones to map the topography across the moss beds and collect data on the chlorophyll and other pigments within the moss, offering insights into the mosses health. They will also carbon date moss cores to garner insights into its deep past.

Using a method she developed during her PhD looking at Antarctic moss microclimates in West Antarctica, Krystal will set up a network of sensing equipment to reveal the magnitude of variations in temperature, light and moisture conditions across the moss beds. This will establish links between the physical environment and climate close to the ground and moss health. All the data that Sharon, Krystal and Georgia collect on this trip will continue to inform our understanding of the only plants that live on this continent.

Windows into Antarctic life

Aimee Bliss and Toby Travers will be collecting samples for two perspectives on the responses of life to changing Antarctic conditions. Soil samples will unveil the extent to which Antarctic life is dominated by the strange process of chemosynthesis. Unlike photosynthetic organisms, which use the sun for energy, chemosynthetic bacteria can gain energy from scavenging gasses such as hydrogen that are ubiquitous but present in small amounts. The significance of chemosynthesis, though now found in several Antarctic settings, is yet to be determined, especially in the context of changing Antarctic conditions.

Meanwhile, lake sampling will deliver insights into how life responds to the changing Antarctic environment in lake settings. Though lakes are common across Antarctica, the full range of life’s responses to lake conditions now, and in the past, has yet to be fully mapped. Both water and lake sediments provide different though complementary perspectives on these environments.

On their return to Australia, Aimee and Toby will deliver these soil, lake and water samples to SAEF researchers who will reveal their secrets through a range of novel scientific approaches.

Every trip to Antarctica is exciting. The continent is spectacular and a bellwether of our changing world. The excitement comes from the breath-taking environment and the realisation that to secure it we need to understand it. Doing so is essential both for its future and for ours.

Follow the team via #SAEFGOSOUTH2022

About the author

Anna Quinn

Anna is the senior communications adviser at SAEF.