Troll Research Station, Antarctica — Into the Antarctic enigma, the puzzle of a place with too few researchers chasing too many climate mysteries, slowly waddles the elephant seal.
The fat-snouted pinniped, two ugly tons of blubber and roar, is plunging to its usual frigid depths these days in the service of climate science, and of scientists’ budgets.
“It would take years and millions and millions of dollars for a research ship to do what they’re doing,” Norwegian scientist Kim Holmen said of the instrument-equipped seals, whose long-distance swims and 1,000-foot dinnertime dives for squid are giving investigators valuable data about a key piece of southern ocean.
Climatologists and others say the icy continent has been monitored too thinly for too long in a warming world. Weather stations, glacier movement detectors and research treks over the ice are too few and far between.
“We’re monitoring routinely a small portion of the continent. I’d say 1 percent,” said David Holland, an Antarctic expert at New York University.
The reason to worry is clear: If all the land ice here melted, it would raise ocean levels 187 feet worldwide.
That theoretical possibility would take many centuries, but “Antarctica is huge, so even a small change would make a big difference,” said Jan Gunnar Winther, director of the Norwegian Polar Institute which operates this research station in East Antarctica.
Even a 1 percent loss of Antarctic ice would raise sea levels 2 feet, a slow-motion disaster for global coastlines.
“Antarctica is changing rapidly in unpredicted ways,” Holmen, the Norwegian institute’s research director, told environment ministers and other international officials visiting this outpost in East Antarctica’s icebound mountains in February.
He said the shelf collapses in the west may eventually be replicated here in the east. Computer models show that warming waters would weaken the 7,000-square-mile Fimbul ice shelf, which reaches 60 miles to sea from the coastline north of here, fed by one of Antarctica’s largest ice streams, the Jutulstraumen glacier.
It’s a neighborhood the huge bull elephant seals know well, since they migrate over a 1,000-mile stretch of ocean between uninhabited Bouvet Island and the Fimbul shelf.