Scientists fear more unpredictable ice conditions could see more Antarctic tourist ships becoming stranded, or worse. (AFP: Andrew Peacock)
The greater variability of sea ice cover in Antarctica over the year puts tourist vessels at greater risk of getting stuck, experts have warned.
The distribution of sea ice varies as the seasons change, extending in winter and retreating in warmer months, but this past winter sea ice in Antarctica reached its lowest extent on record.
Jan Lieser from the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems research centre said its extent had peaked just three years ago.
“It appears that both the summertime minimum and the wintertime maximum sea ice extent around Antarctica have set new record lows,” Dr Lieser said.
“Only three years ago we recorded Antarctic sea ice at a record high extent, which really illustrates the level of variability that we are dealing with in this system.”
Scientists and meteorologists from around the globe are meeting in Hobart in a bid to improve sea ice navigation in the Antarctic as tourist numbers grow.
Research suffers when rescues take priority
Dr Lieser said understanding the conditions was “critically important”, but the large variability made forecasting difficult and could cause issues for ships navigating the area — particularly tourist vessels.
“Unpredictable sea ice conditions have created all sorts of headaches for scientific and resupply operations in Antarctica, and there is a clear need for more reliable charting and forecasting methods,” he said.
“Patterns of sea ice distribution in the Arctic and Antarctic have been changing rapidly in recent years, at the same time as commercial shipping pressure has been increasing.
“Some 50 cruise vessels carried almost 35,000 tourists to the Antarctic just last year.”
The consequences of navigational errors could be dire, experts warn. (AFP/www.footloosefotography.com: Adam Peacock)
If navigational mistakes were made, the consequences could be dire.
“We have seen a number of private and commercial ships becoming stuck in the Antarctic sea ice in recent years, which have led to costly rescue operations that can delay scientific work,” Dr Lieser said.
In 2013 the Russian ship, Akademik Shokalskiy, became stuck in East Antarctica with many Australians among the 52 tourists and scientists onboard, trapping them for more than a week over Christmas and New Years Eve until they were rescued.
Dr Lieser said the international ice charting group, comprising 60 representatives from 12 countries, wanted to make sure it did not happen again.
“We still have a lot more work to do to understand the fundamental oceanic and atmospheric processes driving sea ice variability in Antarctica,” he said.