SAMS news room

How are the polar regions changing?

The Arctic region is undergoing a period of rapid change
The Arctic region is undergoing a period of rapid change

In a new report published this week scientists from leading UK and Norwegian research institutions have highlighted an urgent need to further investigate the least understood regions on Earth.

Reporting in the State of the Polar Oceans 2018 researchers from both countries explain how decades of multi-disciplinary studies in the regions have advanced scientific knowledge about climate warming, biodiversity and conservation of marine life.

This knowledge has allowed scientists to observe rapid changes over the past decades. Oceans are warming significantly and summer temperatures in the Arctic Ocean are now 2–3°C warmer than the 1982–2010 mean, with a corresponding reduction in summer sea ice extent of nearly 50 per cent from the late 1970s to 2017.

In the Southern Ocean around Antarctica the picture is more variable. The greatest increase in temperature has been recorded in the shallowest 2,000m of the sea, but this does not apply to the southernmost part of the ocean, where ongoing upwelling of colder, deeper waters is helping to maintain a more constant surface temperature.

The polar oceans sustain millions of seabirds, whales and fish, from penguins in the south to polar bears in the north, as well as providing food for a hungry world.

Arctic researcher Prof Finlo Cottier of SAMS, a contributor to the report, said: “In order to prepare for potential changes in our weather, our food stocks and our marine habitats, we must first understand how our polar oceans are changing now.

“There are big gaps in our knowledge of the Arctic winter and particularly in the transition from winter into spring. That's a really important time when the light reappears, when growth in the water takes place. There are many unanswered questions we still need to investigate.”

The international community is poised to take advantage of new state-of-the-art polar research platforms such as the RRS Sir David Attenborough and the Kronprins Haakon to continue to drive forward science that is critical for understanding the big questions about our global environment.

Professor Mike Meredith leads British Antarctic Survey’s (BAS) Polar Oceans team.  He said: “The polar oceans have long been amongst the least explored and least understood regions on Earth, yet they exert a profound influence over all of the planet.

“What happens in these oceans directly affect the lives of its inhabitants. Recent advances in measurement techniques and our ability to create computer simulations of ocean processes gives us new insight into how they are changing.

“We are beginning to understand what those changes mean for climate, sea level, for the marine ecosystem as well as for humans and society.

Scientists know that the polar oceans control global temperatures, and have absorbed more than 90 per cent of all the extra heat trapped in the Earth system since the industrial revolution began.

Read the full report here