Melting of the West-Antarctic ice sheet means we need to get moving to prepare for sea level rise

Something dramatic is taking place in the Antarctic

* Yesterday, James Shaw and Eugenie Sage paid a visit to the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University to meet with leading climate scientists. James shares his reflections on their vital work.

Something dramatic is taking place in the Antarctic. I’m sitting in a room at the Antarctic Research Centre, Victoria University, Wellington, with some of the world’s foremost experts on the Antarctic and I am equal parts fascinated and horrified by the sheer scale of the changes that are taking place around the southern continent. Professor of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences; James Renwick, is speaking of vast weather systems pulsing inwards and outwards – the Southern Annular Mode it’s called, but I can’t help thinking of a beating heart. It seems to me that the scientists here are monitoring our planet’s pulse – and it’s not looking good.

Associate Professor Nick Golledge shows us how the vast ice shelves of West Antarctica are melting and fracturing, exposing the great ice sheets behind them. The potential for massive sea level rise is quite frankly world-changing. The impact that this will have on the daily lives of billions of people is far reaching. We’re shown a model of what this means for Wellington. The CBD, large swathes of Miramar and much of the lower Hutt Valley are underwater.  As much as the idea of kayaking to work appeals to my sense of adventure, I think I might still want to catch the train on occasion (today’s ‘weather bomb’ may well be one). It’s hard to make use of a rail system or a motorway if it’s underwater.

James and Eugenie chat to Prof Nicholas Goldedge of the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University
James and Eugenie chat to Assoc. Prof Nicholas Golledge from the Antarctic Research Centre at Victoria University

What impact will this have on New Zealand’s fisheries? While there are studies on ocean acidity underway – due to a distinct lack of funding, we actually don’t know what is happening to the temperature of our national waters – something that is quite frustrating to the minds here. Indeed the constant battle to secure funding for climate change research is a recurring theme, which to me seems odd given how crucial the work being done here is.

It is a sad truth that whatever action we take to halt the climate crisis, nature and our climate systems have already begun to change because of global warming. It’s clear we need the expertise that resides at the Antarctic Research Centre more than ever – to understand what the future climate might hold for farmers, our cities, our fisheries, plants and native species.

Being reminded of the enormous changes we are inflicting on our own home is a powerful motivator. 2017 is the year in which New Zealanders have a chance to make climate the issue for politicians of all stripes, to remind them that it is their moral responsibility to protect our home not just for ourselves but for future generations. I hope that New Zealanders and politicians alike take on this challenge.