Amanda Maxwell

Sep 9th 2019

Climate Change Opens Up Polar Exploration


Climate change and melting glaciers in the Arctic are negatively impacting sea levels. Reduced sea ice challenges polar animals by interfering with the food web, closing down traditional hunting strategies and increasing traffic. These are local problems with global impact.

Conversely, polar exploration also benefits from thawing ice. Increased access to field sites is revealing the historical record of climate cycles, while microbes living deep within the ice give clues to antibiotic resistance and survival tactics.

Arctic Ice at Sea and on Land

The Arctic is defined by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) as the region lying north of the Arctic Circle (66° 34′), where there is no sunset on the summer solstice or sunrise on the winter solstice. The Arctic is also described as the lands north of the tree line, including northern latitudes where summer temperatures do not rise above 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit). In this region, ice is found all over the Arctic Ocean, or as glaciers or ice caps on the land around its perimeter.

While sea ice melt doesn’t contribute to rising ocean levels, water from thawing glaciers and ice caps does. Due to global warming, glaciers are melting at much faster rates. News Deeply reports that if the whole Greenland ice sheet melts (approximately 1.7 million square kilometers or 656,000 square miles), sea levels will rise around 7.2 m (23.62 feet). But regardless of where it’s found, ice coverage in the Arctic can be an obstacle to polar exploration.

Polar Exploration Takes Advantage of Melting Ice

As the ice melts, nations gain easier access to polar exploration. Benefits include safer, faster shipping lanes and easier resource survey and extraction. There is even potential for renewable energy production and sustainable fish harvesting. Bloomberg lists energy sources such as oil and gas, in addition to precious and rare earth metals, sparking interest.

Arctic permafrost — the rock and soil that stays permanently frozen year-round — is also thawing and opening up areas for resource exploration and extraction. However, this is causing problems with infrastructure such as roads; even the Global Seed Vault is affected.

Ice Melt Uncovers Historical Climate Records

Ice melt also opens up areas for scientific discovery; researchers have found valuable data as the Arctic ice recedes. Samples need to be quickly collected before warmer conditions destroy the evidence.

On Baffin Island, melting ice has uncovered historical plant life that shows how changes in global temperature affected vegetation in the region throughout history. Rooted moss and lichen, which have been exposed as glaciers retreat, have been reliably carbon dated to 40,000 years ago, says CBC News.

Research published in Nature suggests that summer conditions are now the warmest in around 115,000 years.

Melting Ice Reveals New Fungi

Science Daily reports the discovery of two new fungi. Researchers from Japan and Canada found the new species in a rapidly melting glacier on Ellesmere Island to the west of Greenland.

Both fungi are a type of yeast, and their discovery helps expand research on diversity in the region. Scientists are better able to understand the impact of climate change on the cold-adapted species and their role in decomposing organic material in the Arctic.

Cautious Next Steps for Polar Exploration

Researchers have found microbes alive in thawing ice samples. BBC News reports that ancient bacteria trapped in ice cores formed thousands of years ago in an Alaskan pond came back to life and started swimming.

Researchers also discovered 30,000-year-old viruses still capable of infection after their deep freeze. Rising temperatures risk reawakening old diseases. For example:

  1. Animal carcasses don’t decompose in sub-zero temperatures, so disease-causing pathogens can survive and spread when the carcasses of polar animals resurface.
  2. In addition to microbes coming back to life when conditions improve, some, like anthrax, survive long periods of freezing by creating indestructible but infective spores.
  3. Vox also notes that permafrost stores mercury, carbon dioxide and methane.

Awareness of these hazards could help protect workers mining the new resources.

Potential for New Medicine

Research could also be valuable to medicine. In 2012, Scientific American proposed that Arctic ice as an excellent repository for novel genomic material. Even though they haven’t been exposed to modern commercial antibiotics, some ancient bacteria contain antimicrobial resistance genes. While this is worrying in terms of potential disease risk, genomic research could benefit from learning about these novel resistance mechanisms and allied virulence factors as targets for new drugs.