Scientist's quest to spread the warning from the southern wilderness

October 3, 2005

Brussels, 30 Sep 2005

The Antarctic is as remote as it is hostile - no other continent is so cold or sparsely populated. But while it may be a frozen desert at the southern tip of the Earth, the Antarctic plays a key role in global systems as the location for 70 per cent of the planet's freshwater and 90 per cent of the globe's ice.

The continent's role in understanding global climate change has been especially highlighted in recent years, with climate researchers issuing stark warnings based on the signs that they have read there - the atmospheric temperature has risen by three degrees Celsius in the last 50 years alone. In this regard, though, the remoteness of the Antarctic and the small place it occupies in the day-to-day consciousness of humanity has conspired against those trying to raise the climate change alarm.

'It can be frustrating sometimes,' admits Geraint Tarling, head of ecosystem dynamics for the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). Dr Tarling understands that the Antarctic peninsula does not directly affect the lives of many humans, but the rapid changes in large-scale physical and biological systems that he and his colleagues are witnessing in the Southern Ocean will impact on populated areas too.

It is hard for Dr Tarling to understand why there is still so much uncertainty surrounding the of issue climate change when, as he says, ' the Royal Society issued a consensus document representing the sum of human knowledge on climate change , which clearly states that the evidence for it is categorical.' Scientific uncertainties persist regarding exactly what the consequences of climate change will be, which can dilute the message, 'but we do know that change is coming', he told CORDIS News.

His own research focuses on picking out trends in biological species - particularly Antarctic Krill - but the data feeds into the BAS' wider, multidisciplinary framework. 'Each isolated study - whether it is in atmospheric physics or biological science - collects its own data, but it only really makes sense within larger models,' Dr Tarling explains. 'These are complex systems that require the input of all teams.'

Antarctic Krill flourishes in the marginal ice zone of the southern seas, supporting predatory species including penguins, seals and whales. Dr Tarling and his team measure their numbers using net samples and, more recently, acoustic systems, and what they are seeing is a species in decline. 'It's hard to explain, but combined with other data we think we can see that their habitat - the marginal ice zone - is in retreat, and many Krill are not reaching adulthood. Consequently, we are also seeing a population decline in predators such as penguins and seals.'

And if, as expected, the Antarctic's freshwater ice continues to melt in the face of rising temperatures, the potential breakdown of the thermohaline circulation, which keeps northern latitudes artificially warm, will have a massive impact on the European climate. 'We will begin to see Arctic winters in northern Europe and Saharan summers in the south,' says Dr Tarling.

All of which gets him reaching for his soapbox, as he calls it. 'These changes need to be brought to the attention of the general public. [...] We need to present the facts as well as the uncertainties to people, and relate the changes that are occurring back to the human activities that are causing them.' For this reason, Dr Tarling is participating in a scientific outreach exercise supported through the European Commission's 'Researchers in Europe' initiative - a Mobility action under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6).

In cooperation with the British Council, the Commission is organising a series of events to improve communication between researchers and society. Dr Tarling is giving presentations at a series of so-called 'cafés scientifiques', trying to explain why climate change in Polar Regions should concern us all. 'If people are made aware of things in an engaging way, it is possible to get them to understand the issues,' he says.

He believes it is the duty of scientists to try harder to reach out to the public, but equally there is the duty of the media to try harder to get the true message across. 'Getting your voice heard in the media is a way to get through to a lot of people, but it's strange to read some of the stories that get media coverage sometimes.'

Having already made his presentation via video link in Lahore and Islamabad in Pakistan, Dr Tarling will visit Brussels, Mexico and Estonia to further spread the word. He is realistic about the potential impact of his efforts: 'I'm not expecting immediate results - education is a slow process. [...] But this is a great way of internationalising the scientific debate, which can often be rather cliquey or snobbish.'

'The participation of young people in the café scientifique programme is especially important,' argues Dr Tarling. 'It's hard to engage young people in science in Europe - you have to make it exciting and show them that science can make a real difference. If just a small nucleus of young people understands what I'm saying and go away interested it will have a snowball effect, and that is enough for me.

Dr Tarling, who began his own research career with funding from the Commission's Third Framework Programme, appreciates the effort that the EU is making to promote science in society. 'The work is improving, and it's good to see the Commission putting their money where their mouth is - especially in reaching out to young people,' he says.

For him and his colleagues, Dr Tarling hopes that the constant increases in computing power will lead to more sophisticated climate models and a reduction in the level of uncertainty surrounding future predictions. Furthermore, 2007 is the start of International Polar Year, which he expects will see an international effort to improve education and outreach programmes.

'These goals for the future are a good thing to have,' concludes Dr Tarling. For now, though, his immediate goal is to spread the warning message that he hears in the Antarctic wilderness.

For more information on the Researchers in Europe initiative, please visit:
http:///europ a.eu.int/comm/research/resea rchersineurope/events/event_2347_en.htm


For further information on the BAS, please consult the following web address:
http://www.antarctica.ac.uk/

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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