Winds of change

28 October 2016

On James Ross Island, off the northern Antarctic Peninsula, Dr Nerilie Abram from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences stands in the path of the battering westerly gales, and collects an ice core.

Surrounded by snow, ice and wind, Dr Abram is there to understand a weather phenomenon which seems very far away: the pattern of devastating heat and droughts in southern Australia.

The core Dr Abram collected was, she says, “the missing piece to the puzzle” of understanding the increasing number of droughts in Australia, and also, why Antarctica is not warming as much as other continents. The answer lies in that westerly wind.

“We studied the ice cores, and also tree rings, to build up a picture of how the westerly winds have changed over the last 1,000 years,” she explains.

“Greenhouse warming is changing the winds to the south of Australia and that means Antarctica is actually stealing more of Australia’s rainfall. Some years, the winds are drawn in closer to the Antarctic continent so less storms come up and hit Australia.

“This is why Antarctica really bucks the trend of the rest of the continents. Whereas everywhere else on the Earth has been warming over the last century, some parts of Antarctica don’t show that trend yet and we can explain that through the stronger winds, tying the cold air closer to Antarctica.”

Like so much of the work at the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences, Dr Abram’s findings have significant policy implications, and without reductions in our greenhouse emissions, it’s not good news for Australia.

“All of the latest climate models predict that as greenhouse gases continue to rise this century, we can expect the westerly winds to draw even closer to Antarctica. This means we’re likely to get less of those storms being chased up into Australia, and the rainfall will decline.”

Meanwhile, the James Ross Island ice core is helping to solve other puzzles of human-induced climate change. Dr Abram is now leading an international team who will use it alongside hundreds of other past climate records from all over the world to learn more about climate warming since the start of the industrial revolution.

The ANU Research School of Earth Sciences is Australia’s leading academic research institution for earth sciences and home to the largest concentration of earth scientists in Australia.

We take a broad view in addressing the big challenges of earth sciences, seeking to answer questions ranging from the origins of the Earth, to understanding climate change. We have a reputation for international leadership and innovation, focused on developing new methods, whether experimental, analytical or computational.

We are home to 70 world-class scientists and cutting-edge facilities, and play host to the prestigious Jaegar-Hales Lecture for distinguished geoscientists.