site.btaClimate Change Most Visible in Antarctica, Polar Explorers Tell BTA
During a visit to the Bulgarian pavilion at COP28 at the invitation of the Ministry of Environment and Water, polar explorers heading the national Antarctic research programmes of Bulgaria, Spain and Portugal drew attention to the impact of climate change as seen from the Ice Continent.
In an exclusive interview for BTA, Prof. Christo Pimpirev, Chairman of the Bulgarian Antarctic Institute, Prof. Antonio Quesada, head of the Spanish national Antarctic programme and Chair of the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), and Assoc. Prof. Goncalo Vieira, Coordinator of the Portuguese Polar Programme and Vice-President of the International Permafrost Association, discussed their observations on climate change in Antarctica, why scientific research there is indicative of planet-wide processes, whether the computer models projecting climate change development are wrong, and the camaraderie among polar explorers.
Quesada: Climate changes are obvious in the South Shetland Islands, which are located at the northernmost tip of Antarctica. Because of the very rapid rise in temperatures, the quantity of ice is decreasing annually both offshore and onshore, and the glaciers, too, are receding and shrinking very fast. Vegetation is increasing substantially.
Pimpirev: Ice, which covers 90% of Antarctica’s surface, is melting, the sea level is rising, and this spells a serous risk to all mankind.
Vieira: Our three countries cooperate in logistics and infrastructure, but also in implementing our programmes synergetically. We are jointly seeking various forms of financing and of communicating and popularizing the results of our research. For the first time now, there is a joint project in Europe that finances scientists’ access to Antarctica and assists the national organizations, so that more researchers could work on the Ice Continent even if their countries do not have Antarctic bases. The European project is for both poles.
Quesada: This EUR 15 million project is a sort of Erasmus programme for polar research.
Pimpirev: Our joint project with Spain and Portugal for permafrost research is an example of exploration whose results can help tackle the climate crisis. Permafrost is the most sensitive layer of the Earth’s surface which depends globally on climate change, especially on the presence of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, on greenhouse gases.
Vieira: Near the Bulgarian base, there is an array of permafrost monitoring points that have been in operation since 2008 as part of the global permafrost monitoring network. The infrastructures of Bulgaria, Spain and Portugal help learn more about processes in the northern part of Antarctica.
Quesada: This is arguably one of the most significant networks in the world.
Pimpirev: Cooperation among the national programmes is crucial for arriving at climate change solutions that concern all mankind, so as to mitigate global warming.
Quesada: We provide monitoring data and advice. We provide feed to the global warming models, which is why our readings are exceedingly important. We provide reliable information about what is going on in the planet which enables us to project what lies ahead in the future. Actually, politicians rather than we are the decision-makers, but we furnish the hard facts. In reality, our three organizations have good contacts with politicians. Our countries’ governments listen to us.
Vieira: The diagnosis is more or less clear. We are aware of the situation, and it is not at all good. It is time to take action and tackle the issues. In the area of the South Shetlands, ocean water oxidation causes exceedingly rapid changes in a lot of sensitive and unique ecosystems. Some species will become extinct because they cannot migrate. Biodiversity and genetic diversity will be lost, and this problem is often ignored, even regarding micro organisms. Changes in permafrost affect the shifts of groundwater, vegetation, and landslides. The access of nutrients to soils and to the ocean is impeded. Part of the melting permafrost finds its way into the ocean, and this will very soon impact coastal waters. Glaciers are the front line of climate change, and this is immensely important for global changes, especially in coastal areas. The risk of the ocean level rising is not the only issue. Coastal erosion is already growing. People living inland would say that this is not their problem, but they are wrong because the taxes they pay will be spent on addressing the problems in the affected areas instead of being used for healthcare and education. We may be exploring a niche area, but what is happening there concerns the whole world, and our research and the model feeds are therefore important and advance science.
Pimpirev: Politicians and business must take notice of the facts provided by scientists: global warming is a fact, the Antarctic ice is melting, and the ocean level is rising. All we scientists can do is sound the alarm. It is up to politicians to decide on stopping greenhouse emissions into the atmosphere.
Quesada: And up to society. Antarctica is a pristine continent, far from sources of pollution. That is why what happens there merely reflect processes in the Northern hemisphere. It furnishes us with proof of developments, and we use Antarctica as a watchtower, a sentinel of global climate change. It is coming. We identify the facts, the problems, and we can come up with advice. The scientific issue that nags me is why our change projection models do not work. Global models are more generous, they project less significant effects than the ones we witness. They happen faster even than the worst-case scenarios in the models. This is very bad and menacing. We must find out what is deficient in the model feeds. We need to redouble our efforts in every aspect of scientific research, detect what is missing, find the synergies and work together so as to understand what is going on. This holistic approach will not yield immediate results, which is why we should work together, and we are already close. There are always different opinions, programmes and priorities, but 90% of the Antarctic explorers are like-minded and follow the same path. We need further cooperation, sharing all results, even of the smallest programmes. We are trying to do it, sharing information more efficiently. We are trying to make science on the same or even less investments and with a smaller carbon footprint. Last year we managed to save nearly USD 1.5 million, merely by communication with each other.
Vieira: There is yet another reason for helping each other. Most exploration programmes are limited to three years. Quite a few researchers are working on smaller projects for a short period of time and are unable to achieve anything of substance. Research requires continuous financing.
Quesada: We should make more reasonable use of the funding because it is unrealistic to expect more and more money all the time. Compared to space research, Antarctic research is not expensive. More money goes into logistics and less is left for the research itself.