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Tue September 27, 2011
Dr. John Anderson, Rice University - Antarctica's Past
Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. John Anderson of Rice University explains what the sediment below the ice of Antarctica reveals about the continent's past and the planet's future.
John Anderson is the Maurice Ewing Professor of Oceanography at Rice University. Anderson has visited Antarctica 24 times since his first visit as a student in 1970, and in 2000 he published the comprehensive work, Antarctic Marine Geology. He holds a Ph.D. from Florida State University.
Dr. John Anderson - Antarctica's Past
People often ask me how many times I've been to Antarctica, and to be completely honest, I've lost count. The next question is usually, "Does it ever get old?" To that, I have a quick answer: "Never." Every trip is different, and Mother Nature keeps things interesting. One recent trip we made to the Antarctic Peninsula is a good example.
The peninsula juts farther north than the rest of the continent, and it was the last part of Antarctica to succumb to ice. It's also the part that has experienced the most dramatic warming in recent decades, with mean annual temperatures rising as much as six times faster there than worldwide. The best way to predict how this type of climate change will affect Antarctica is to examine how the continent reacted to such episodes in the past.
Long ago, Antarctica was relatively warm and forested. It started cooling about 35 million years ago. To find out how rapidly it cooled, we needed to look under the sea -- at muddy layers of sediment below the continental shelf. Thanks a project called SHALDRIL that was funded by the National Science Foundation, we got our chance to do that in 2005 and 2006. Those turned out to be two of the worst ice years I can remember in Antarctica; it felt we spent more time dodging icebergs than drilling core samples.
Upon analysis, we found the cores held a treasure trove of information. By studying pebbles, sand grains and fossil pollen, we reconstructed a detailed climate history for the peninsula. This look back in time helped us put today's climate change into context. And it showed us that Antarctica is changing more rapidly today than it has at any time in the past.