Russian scientists have announced that they have found a new type of bacteria living in a subglacial lake in Antarctica. This finding is significant as it was previously thought that life in those conditions was not possible, or improbable. This finding also helps support theories that life may exist elsewhere in the universe on cold planets of stars which were previously considered too cold or isolated to support life.
A new study by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) shows that ice in both Polar Regions is melting at an accelerating rate (up to 5 times the rate of a few years ago).
The study was produced by an international collaboration — the Ice Sheet Mass Balance Inter-comparison Exercise (IMBIE) — that combined observations from 10 satellite missions to develop the first consistent measurement of polar ice sheet changes. The researchers reconciled differences among dozens of earlier ice sheet studies by carefully matching observation periods and survey areas. They also combined measurements collected by different types of satellite sensors, such as ESA’s radar missions; NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat); and the NASA/German Aerospace Center’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).
Acidification of the Antarctic Ocean is corroding the shells of some marine snails (pteropods) around Antarctica according to a study by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
“They are a major grazer of phytoplankton and… a key prey item of a number of higher predators – larger plankton, fish, seabirds, whales,” said Dr Geraint Tarling, Head of Ocean Ecosystems at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and co-author of the report.
NOAA, NASA: Antarctic ozone hole second smallest in 20 years
October 24, 2012
Warmer air temperatures high above the Antarctic led to the second smallest seasonal ozone hole in 20 years, according to NOAA and NASA satellite measurements. This year, the average size of the ozone hole was 6.9 million square miles (17.9 million square kilometers). The ozone layer helps shield life on Earth from potentially harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation that can cause skin cancer and damage plants.
The Antarctic ozone hole forms in September and October, and this year, the hole reached its maximum size for the season on Sept. 22, stretching to 8.2 million square miles (21.2 million square kilometers), roughly the area of the United States, Canada and Mexico combined. In comparison, the largest ozone hole recorded to date was in 2000 at 11.5 million square miles (29.9 million square kilometers).
The Antarctic ozone hole began making a yearly appearance in the early 1980s, caused by chlorine released by manmade chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs. The chlorine can rapidly break apart ozone molecules in certain conditions, and the temperature of the lower stratosphere plays an important role.
“It happened to be a bit warmer this year high in the atmosphere above Antarctica, and that meant we didn’t see quite as much ozone depletion as we saw last year, when it was colder,” said Jim Butler with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo.
Even 25 years after an international agreement was signed to regulate production of ozone-depleting chemicals, the ozone hole still forms each year. In fact, it could be another decade before scientists can detect early signs of Antarctic ozone layer recovery, according to a paper by NOAA researchers and colleagues published last year. The ozone layer above Antarctica likely will not return to its early 1980s state until about 2060, noted NASA atmospheric scientist Paul Newman.
The length of time needed for this full recovery is due in part to the large quantity and long lifetime of ozone-depleting substances in the atmosphere. Climate change may also affect the rate of ozone recovery by cooling the stratosphere, which has several competing effects on ozone depletion.
Monitoring the ozone’s state remains important because the ozone layer acts as Earth’s natural shield from DNA-mutating UV radiation. Under the mandate of the Clean Air Act, NOAA and NASA scientists keep a close eye on the ozone layer’s health with satellite data, ground-based measurements and balloon-borne instruments.
A new ozone-monitoring instrument on Suomi-NPP weather satellite, the Ozone Mapping Profiler Suite (OMPS), will be key to that effort. OMPS will extend the satellite record of ozone hole extent, which dates back to the early 1970s, and will provide more detail about ozone levels at various layers in the atmosphere and around the globe.
“OMPS Limb instrument looks sideways, and it can measure ozone as a function of height,” says Pawan Bhartia, NASA atmospheric physicist and OMPS instrument lead.
“This OMPS instrument allows us to more closely see the vertical development of Antarctic ozone depletion in the lower stratosphere where the ozone hole occurs.”
Balloon-borne and ground-based instruments provide ozone data when darkness prevents satellite observations. “The sun doesn’t rise above the South Pole horizon until about Sept. 22, by which time ozone depletion has already begun,” said NOAA atmospheric scientist Irina Petropavlovskikh.
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Scientists in the Arctic have launched an urgent investigation into how solar storms can disrupt sat-nav.
Studies have revealed how space weather can cut the accuracy of GPS by tens of metres.
Flares from the Sun interact with the upper atmosphere and can distort the signals from global positioning satellites.
The research is pressing because rapid warming is attracting more vessels, tourists and mining operators.
The project is under way at a remote observatory on a windswept mountainside in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard in the High Arctic.
The most familiar effect of solar storms is the creation – when the Sun’s particles strike the Earth’s magnetic field – of the beautiful Northern Lights.
But the scientists are hoping to understand the impact on satellite signals and then to try to develop a system for forecasting the most damaging effects of space weather.
The site was chosen for its isolation from electronic pollution and for its position in relation to the Earth’s magnetic field which flows from space down towards the far North.
Violent solar activity has long been known to pose risks to satellites in orbit and to electricity networks. Aircraft flight-paths are usually altered to avoid the most northerly areas.
Less well understood is the distorting effect of the Sun on the ionosphere which GPS radio transmissions have to pass through on their way to sat-nav receivers on the ground.
“It’s like the twinkling of the stars,” according to Professor Dag Lorentzen of the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS).
“If you’re standing outside looking at the night sky, some of the stars are twinkling as the intensity of the light changes – and this is basically the same for a sat receiver seeing the signal from a GPS satellite.”
The effect, known as scintillation, is most acute at northerly latitudes but can even be observed in periods of quiet solar activity.
During our visit to the observatory, no solar storm was under way but the station’s GPS receivers were inaccurate by between 1-3 metres when compared with the site’s known location.
This is the result of the normal flow of the solar wind disturbing the upper atmosphere in high latitudes – while a solar storm can produce a far larger effect.
Professor Lorentzen said: “If you have a very large solar storm, you can get a distortion of up to tens of metres.
“It’s absolutely important to understand why this is happening so that if we know that we have a solar storm, then we might be able to predict the deviation or accuracy of the GPS signal in the future.”
This matters as the retreat of Arctic ice opens up the region to new activities including oil drilling, shipping and tourism – all of which require highly accurate navigation especially for search and rescue.
But signal distortion has also been observed at much lower latitudes during solar storms so may have more widespread implications.
Dr Lisa Baddeley, another UNIS scientist working on the project, is in charge of an installation known as SPEAR, which stands for Space Plasma Exploration by Active Radar.
This is an array of 48 giant aerials, originally built by Leicester University but now run by UNIS. The aerials work in concert to transmit a 16MW radio beam into the upper atmosphere to mimic the effects of a solar flare.
By firing the beam into the ionosphere and measuring its effects on the particles there, Dr Baddeley and colleagues can probe the mechanisms of solar interference.
“Everyone has satnav in their cars – it’s something we take almost for granted,” she told me.
“What we need to research is how these GPS systems are affected by solar storms and this huge amount of energy coming into the Earth.”
Similar arrays, such as a much powerful one known as HAARP run by the US in Alaska, have attracted controversy with questions about their true purpose. Last year a retired Russian general speculated that Russia’s Phobos-Grunt mission to Mars went wrong because of the influence of HAARP.
Scientists involved in the projects have always dismissed the allegations as ludicrous.
Dr Baddeley explained that the Svalbard array is shut down by the control tower of the local airport whenever an aircraft approaches so any risk is negligible.
A more immediate hazard is posed by the Arctic wildlife. Throughout our interview, amid the field of masts, she kept a rifle slung over her shoulder – standard practice for anyone working in the open here because of the threat of polar bears.
Our visit took place during late summer but the installation has to be maintained year round including the dark days of winter.
“In the depths of the polar night,” Dr Baddeley said, “when it’s pitch black, and minus 20, it’s reassuring to have the gun.
“And I sometimes bring a dog because dogs are the best for looking out for polar bears.”
This is science at its toughest. But the more satnav becomes the electronic backbone of so much of modern life, the more valuable will be the findings gathered on this lonely hillside.