Impacts of climate change in Antarctica. What’s Happening Beneath Antarctica’s Ice?… Businesses and investors are keenly interested


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{ By Daniela Hernandez } . They call it the Dreamcatcher. Its job is to help answer one of the most important and perplexing questions facing climate scientists today. Dangling from a helicopter over Antarctica’s frozen landscape, the giant hexagonal instrument sends out electromagnetic waves that penetrate the sheets of ice below, giving scientists something like an X-ray of an ancient body.

The scientists gathered here in Antarctica’s Dry Valleys—a rocky ecosystem dotted with frozen lakes and glaciers, some flowing into the sea—want to know what lies beneath the ice. Is it rock? Or is it salty water?

The answer will have implications for communities, infrastructure and investments all over the world. Glaciers sitting atop briny water can be more prone to sliding off the land and into the ocean, potentially contributing to rising sea levels. Yet chief among the blind spots in climate models is the stability of the ice at the bottom of the world.

Scientists are confident that as the planet warms, Antarctic ice sheets will shrink, shedding the water they store. But how much of this continent’s ice could end up in the ocean, and how quickly that might happen, are unknown. That in turn matters for the financial-services firms, asset managers and consultants that have been turning to climate models to assess risk and guide investment.

“The biggest question when it comes to sea-level rise is: How will the Antarctic ice sheets react to ongoing climate change?” says Ricarda Winkelmann, an ice-sheet modeler in Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. When Dr. Winkelmann talks to policy makers and business people, they want to know what is the worst-case scenario, and how fast will climate-related changes occur, she says.


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The answers will come from the work of scientists like Jill Mikucki, Slawek Tulaczyk and Peter Doran, who spent weeks using the Dreamcatcher to map the underbelly of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys. They are part of an ecosystem of polar researchers whose data provide the foundation for global climate models. Such data, which takes years to incorporate into models, is necessary for making the kind of predictions that governments and investors need.

Antarctic scientists are gathering “some of the most high-priority data that needs to be taken,” says Richard Rood, a professor of climate at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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Climate models use measurements of the Earth’s oceans, atmosphere, land and ice, sometimes going back more than 100 years, both to understand the climate’s history and to predict its future. Scientists use mathematical equations that rely on these data to simulate physical phenomena such as rainfall and ocean currents.

They test how good these simulations are at mimicking reality by doing “hind-casting.” If the outputs match historical records, the model is considered accurate, and scientists can use it to study how the planet might react to future conditions.

If models’ calculations don’t match past observations or they fail to predict a future event, as they did with the sudden disintegration of Antarctica’s Larsen B ice shelf in 2002, it is possible scientists are misunderstanding some crucial physical process or just don’t have enough data. That is what makes more and better measurements, such as the information being gathered in Antarctica, so valuable.

Financial firms, including banks and insurance companies, are hiring climatologists and modelers and contracting with data-analysis firms specializing in climate science to help them apply climate data to business decisions.


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Better ice dynamics data will help with “understanding the overall picture on climate change and the pace of change that’s taking place,” says Francis Condon, who focuses on sustainable investing for the global investment-management arm of Swiss bank UBS Group AG . “If there is an indication that the [sea] level is rising faster than previously indicated, that is an issue that needs to be considered from an investment perspective.”

At the Asian Development Bank, which lends to governments and companies in Asia’s developing markets, Jay Roop is part of a team that oversees the construction of wharves, ports and roads around the Pacific region. To predict how projects might fare in future climate conditions, he and his team use 24 different climate models. The data they incorporate include melting rates of glaciers, historical ocean temperatures and rainfall, and information on local geography and water dynamics, which can affect storm surges. Most models don’t have data on the stability of Antarctic ice.

Mr. Roop consulted climate models to assess a wharf the Papua New Guinea government wanted to build. Many models suggested that, without climate-proofing, the wharf would be underwater within a few decades. The design was reconfigured so the wharf could be easily raised. That increased the cost by roughly 17%. Construction will begin in late 2019.

A better sense of how the ice in polar regions is changing would narrow the “range of possible climate futures… which would give us more confidence in how we manage the risks that are being presented to us,” says Mr. Roop, a senior climate specialist in ADB’s Pacific department.

Those who make investment decisions rely on proprietary climate data and publicly funded ice-sheet and global climate models. Some of the data incorporated into models is from large surveys that show what is happening across continents or the world’s oceans.

Model builders using large-scale data can do no more than generalize about smaller-scale processes such as the effect of water on glaciers’ stability. Smaller surveys like the one in the Dry Valleys are “absolutely necessary” to understanding what is happening on the smaller scale and to improve the accuracy of models decision makers use, says Mathieu Morlighem, an ice-sheet modeler at the University of California, Irvine.

Drs. Mikucki, Tulaczyk and Doran are using the Dreamcatcher and on-the-ground measurements of the chemical properties of subglacial water to gain knowledge about ice-sheet behavior and Antarctic habitats never before gleaned from the continent’s ice.

Dr. Mikucki, a microbiologist from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, and her students collected samples from the outflows of saltwater at the Taylor Glacier. The water’s high iron content washes the ice in red. They call it Blood Falls.


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Dr. Mikucki wants to know what organisms live in the ferrous flows, which will help her understand the ecology of hidden briny water. When such water flows into the ocean, it can change water density, which in turn affects global weather patterns.

At Marble Point, a camp in the Dry Valleys, the three researchers took turns overseeing work with the Dreamcatcher. For weeks, they planned experiments and analyzed data from tents surrounded by glaciers, seals and scavenging birds called skuas. Helicopters came and went.

To use the Dreamcatcher—its formal name is SkyTEM—a helicopter must fly it over the glaciers the researchers want to study. Each mission can survey 150 miles.

The tool discriminates between different materials based on something called resistivity—a measure of how easily electrical current can flow. Substances such as ice have high resistivity, meaning electricity doesn’t flow through them easily. Water conducts electricity better. The saltier the water, the lower its resistivity.

Those differences allow the scientists to map subglacial topography. “It’s transformative,” says Dr. Mikucki. The work done in November, says team member and glaciologist Dr. Tulaczyk, provided “positive evidence” there is a lot of water beneath Antarctica’s ice and land surface, including along the coast. Typically, such pockets of water act as a lubricant, making the ice more prone to sliding into the sea.

One surprise: Because of the way some glaciers evolved, especially in valleys below sea level, their undersides might be coated by ancient seawater whose chemistry has changed through interactions with rock and sediment over millennia. How much lubrication that provides has yet to be determined, Dr. Tulaczyk says.

He wants to study, he says, whether the “transformed seawater” has “the same capacity to impact the dynamics, the motion of the glaciers, as water that’s generated by melting those glaciers themselves.” Combined with ice-flow data and climate archives contained in ice cores drilled from other areas of the continent, the information could yield new insights into the stability of Antarctic ice deposits, according to glaciologists and climate scientists.

After the Dry Valleys team wrapped up their experiments in late November, another group of scientists headed to Hercules Dome, roughly 250 miles from the South Pole, to look for 125,000-year-old ice. Their goal is to use that frozen record, which will take five to six years to unearth, to understand how the fragile West Antarctic Ice Sheet has reacted to past changes in climate, and at what rate. Roughly 125,000 years ago, it was much smaller than it is today, and sea levels were much higher.


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The ice core this team is after should provide glaciologists and modelers critical clues about how sensitive this area is to changes in climate, according to Eric Steig, a University of Washington glaciologist who is part of the Hercules Dome expedition. “The largest uncertainty in future sea-level rise is this problem,” he says. “I can’t imagine that won’t affect insurance companies…if we narrow that one way or another.”