Antarctica Geomorphology and Climate Trends

1.1 Introduction

Several regions of the Earth, such as Lake Baikal and the Himalayas, are usually described through several superlatives, but none can compete with Antarctica: the remotest, coldest, windiest, highest continent, with the biggest and thickest ice sheet. The ice moves towards the sea and calves the world's largest icebergs in the Southern Ocean, which has the deepest continental shelf,the largest wind-driven oceanic current, the highest number of endemic species and the largest seasonal variation in ice cover. Antarctica is a unique continent: it contains almost 80 % of the world's freshwater, yet it is the largest cold desert on Earth. Although it receives much more solar radiation in the summer than anywhere else in the world, it is the coldest place on Earth. In contrast with other continents, Antarctica is not located in plates with constructive and destructive margins; during the last 100 Ma, it has thus occupied a quite stable position with respect to the South Pole. Climatic changes in Antarctica during this period are therefore mainly due to global changes.

Through a better understanding of these unique features, it will become obvious to the reader why several research activities cannot be performed at more convenient locations and why this remote, cold and forbidding place, where field research is very difficult and expensive, has become a continent for science. The ice sheet, which deposited over thousands or millions of years, preserves a record of changes of atmospheric composition and climate, and the collection of meteorites in the ice ablation areas provides clues about the history of the solar system. The elevation of the continent, its dry, cold, clean atmosphere, and geomagnetic latitude allow unique astronomical and astrophysical observation and investigation of Earth's magnetosphere and ionosphere.

In spite of its remoteness, Antarctica is linked to lower latitudes through the circulation of the atmosphere and oceans. The large equator-to-pole temperature difference drives the poleward transport of heat and determines the general circulation of the atmosphere, making Antarctica the main heat sink of the Southern Hemisphere. The continuous low-level drainage of the continental surface by katabatic winds is compensated by the inflow of relatively warm air masses which converge and subside in the troposphere over Antarctica. The flow of cold air to the ocean in the shallow boundary layer, coupled with the tropospheric and stratospheric circulation, gives Antarctica a major role in the global climate system and makes it a sink for persistent atmospheric pollutants.

Global climate models predict that the greatest changes will occur at high latitudes. Feedback mechanisms might easily magnify relatively small changes in sea-ice extent and ice-sheet balance, and these changes are likely to be of global importance. Only Antarctica can provide essential data for better understanding these processes and the response of ecosystems to climatic and environmental change. Without Antarctic data, global models would not be able to accurately predict climate change and the impact of persistent airborne pollutants.

This chapter outlines the continental features (morphology, geology, climate) and involvement of Antarctica in global climate processes, with particular emphasis on its important role in establishing global baselines against which to monitor climate change and the impact of human activity. Given its potential contribution to the global increase in sea levels, the stability of Antarctic ice is of general concern and interest. The chapter also reviews available data on climatic variability and change in Antarctica, and estimates of how the Antarctic climate may respond to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases.

In the last two decades, following the discovery of the recurring formation of the ozone "hole" in Antarctica, the possible effects of global warming on the stability of ice sheets, increasing sea levels and global environmental change, many books have been published on the climate, geography, geology, glaciol-ogy, environment and resources of Antarctica. This chapter will only briefly review these topics, with particular emphasis on climatic and atmospheric processes affecting the transport and deposition of persistent environmental pollutants. The reader wishing to further pursue issues of interest in greater depth can refer to specific books and papers quoted in the bibliography.

1.2 Physical Characteristics

The word Antarctic originates from the Greek name of the polar constellation (arktos, the bear) and indicates the region which lies opposite to it (anti-Arctic or Antarctic). The terms Antarctic and Antarctica are often used interchangeably, but it seems more proper to use the first to denote the region (i.e. the area of the Earth south of 60° S, which includes the continent, isolated islands and a large part of the Southern Ocean) and the second for the continent itself (Hansom and Gordon 1998). In spite of the theoretical hypothesis of ancient Greeks and Romans (the Latin geographer Pomponio Mela envisaged a southern continent, Antipodi, inhabited by the Antictoni), Antarctica was omitted in many geographical maps until the 18th and 19th centuries, when the seas around the "Terra Australis nondum cognita" became of interest for the sealing and whaling industries. Although parts of the coast and interior began to appear in some maps at this time, the cartography of the Antarctic region was only completed in the last century (e.g. Sugden 1982; Simpson-Housley 1992; Chaturvedi 1996).

Except for the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula (Fig. 1), the continent lies entirely within the Antarctic Circle (i.e. the parallel at 66° 33'S, corresponding to the angle between the Earth's rotation axis and the plane of its orbit round the Sun). The continent, along with its islands and ice shelves, covers about 13.66x10s km2, representing about 10% of the world land surface and 30% of that in the Southern Hemisphere. Excluding ice

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