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The frozen continent is unpredictable (1)

By Floro Mercene

The International Ice Charting Group, with 60 scientists and meteorologists from 12 countries, met in the Tasmanian capital Hobart recently to discuss sea ice fluctuations and improved navigation and forecasting.

Scientists warned Antarctic’s unpredictable nature poses growing risks to shipping including tourist cruises.

Experts said that it appeared that both the summertime minimum and the wintertime maximum sea ice extent around Antarctica have set new record lows. Satellite images confirm the continent’s sea ice fell to its lowest maximum and minimum levels this year since satellite observations began in 1979.

According to the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Center, while climate change may have played a part, it was still too early to draw any clear link, simply because the variability in the Antarctic sea ice system is so high. Only three years ago, ice levels hit a record high extent. The extreme swings made it vitally important to better understand ocean conditions from more reliable charting and forecasting method to make credible forecasts for polar shipping. Scientists still have a lot more work to do to understand the fundamental oceanic and atmospheric processes driving sea ice variability in Antarctica.

A part from resupply ships, some 50 cruise vessels carried almost 35, 000 tourists to the Antarctic last year to witness its ice shelves, soaring glaciers and wildlife.

If navigational mistakes were made, the consequences could be dire. There were a number of private and commercial ships becoming stuck in the Antarctic sea ice in recent years, which have sometimes led to costly rescue operations.

One such incidents was the Russian ship, Akademik Shokalskiy, which made headlines around the world in 2013. The cost of rescuing the passengers had been estimated at up to A$2.4m (US$1.8M).

(To be continued)