Future developments in Antarctic observation

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This page is part of the topic Observations, data accuracy and tools

Lack of data still remains a significant problem for researchers in many areas of Antarctic science. The Antarctic continent is large and there are logistical difficulties in getting to many areas. Autonomous systems have been deployed increasingly in recent decades and this trend is certain to continue in the future.

Satellites have become of great importance over the last few decades and future missions will greatly aid the science as new instruments are flown. Several satellite missions are scheduled for launch in coming years, many of which will directly benefit studies of the Antarctic. While not exhaustive because of changing plans, some of these are briefly highlighted below.

SMOS - ESA's Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) mission has been designed to observe soil moisture over the Earth's landmasses and salinity over the oceans. It is due to be launched in 2009. Ocean salinity observations will be important to studies and models of the circulation of the Southern Ocean and the role of sea ice. These observations are also hoping to contribute to improved characterisation of ice and snow covered surfaces and studies of accumulation rates in the Antarctic.

Cryosat-2 - After the loss of the first CryoSat in October 2005 due to a launch failure, the decision was made to build and launch the CryoSat-2 satellite. The mission's objectives remain the same as before – to measure ice thickness on both land and sea very precisely so as to provide conclusive proof as to whether there is a trend towards diminishing polar ice cover, furthering our understanding of the relationship between ice and global climate. CryoSat-2 is due for launch in 2009.

Landsat continuity mission - The Landsat series of satellites have provided detailed visible satellite imagery of the Antarctic over the past 30 years. The current satellite, Landsat-7 has developed problems with the ETM+ instrument and plans are now in place to launch a mission to provide continuity of Landsat data in 2011. Plans are also being put in place to implement various options to bridge any Landsat data gap.

GOCE - Launched in March 2009, ESA's Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) is the latest satellite designed to provide an accurate and detailed global model of the Earth's gravity field and geoid. These data will contribute to the quantitative determination, in combination with satellite altimetry, of ocean currents and ocean circulation. These data will also provide estimates of the thickness of the polar ice sheets through the combination of bedrock topography derived from gradiometry and ice sheet surface topography from altimetry.

However, there is still a strong case for high quality observations from the staffed stations. This is the situation with sea level data, for example. There are good climate change and oceanographic arguments for Antarctica to be equipped with a well-maintained and long-term network of about a dozen high quality sea level stations distributed around the continent. These fundamental stations would automatically be components of the Global Sea Level Observing System, and would be supplemented by secondary stations where possible (e.g. on the Antarctic Peninsula), as redundancy of data provision will always be an important consideration, and further complemented by targeted bottom pressure recorders deployments for ocean circulation studies. Such evident minimum requirements are compatible with many other earlier statements of need within, for example, WOCE, Climate Variability and Predictability (CLIVAR) and Global Climate Observing System (GCOS) studies.

For the ocean it is clear that both the scientific research and operational forecasting communities would benefit from implementation of a Southern Ocean Observing System (e.g. Sparrow, 2007[1]) to provide regular and routine observations of the ocean and surface meteorology in situ, to complement the ocean data obtained by satellites (which relate solely to the ocean surface). These data are essential for understanding ocean processes and as inputs to models for forecasting future change.

On land and in the sea there is a clear and urgent need for considerable improvement in biological survey data, without which both the baseline description of ecosystems and the identification of any biological responses or changes influenced by the physical environment are severely hampered. Coupled with this there is an urgent need for the establishment of robust and targetted biological monitoring programmes against which to identify change. Highlighting this point, despite much-used citation of clear biological responses to the currently rapid physical environmental changes along the Antarctic Peninsula (see Antarctic climate and environment change in the instrumental period), in reality there is currently only a single terrestrial location in the entire Antarctic where biological survey and resurvey data are available extending back to near to the start of the current warming phase (see Fowbert and Smith, 1994[2]; Parnikoza et al., in review). This is at the Argentine Islands, coincidentally but positively a station with one of the longest, most detailed and best understood climate records within the Antarctic.

At the level of modelling and prediction, there is a clear need not only in the Antarctic but globally to develop future climate and oceanographic models that are both based on and predict at scales of resolution that are relevant to biological communities and processes. Coupled with this is the need to develop a more robust framework linking the description of climatic variables and trends at macro and micro scales. For instance, while macroclimatic trends of warming have been identified beyond dispute at many stations along the western Antarctic Peninsula and Scotia arc, in reality there are currently no data available (through the lack of long term monitoring studies driven by the normal culture of short-term research programme national funding) demonstrating either the existence of any form of trend in biologically-relevant microclimate variables, or whether any such trend mirrors that in microclimate (see Convey et al., 2003 for discussion of this lack, and an example of an alternative biological proxy). This is a fundamental gap in knowledge.


  1. Sparrow, M. 2007. The Southern Ocean Observing System, CLIVAR Exchanges, 12, No.4 Oct. 2007.
  2. Fowbert, J.A. and Smith, R.I.L. 1994. Rapid population increases in native vascular plants in the Argentine Islands Antarctic Peninsula, Arctic and Alpine Research, 26, 290-296.