Even sitting here writing about it some six months later, the mere fact I went to Antarctica on fieldwork seems somewhat incredulous. My journey into Bogology started on Dartmoor almost 10 years ago and if you had told me on that day, as a keen but inexperienced Masters student, where it might travel along the way I would have thought you quite mad. But even so, other locations I have done fieldwork have all been prime candidates, countries in the right climate space to allow bogs to grow. Not so Antarctica.
To be fair, in the true sense of how a bog is traditionally defined, there are of course no bogs in Antarctica. What there are however, is moss banks. On the Antarctic Peninsula, where in the short Austral summer it gets just warm and wet enough to permit vegetative growth, moss banks have been accumulating for thousands of years in some locations. The moss at the surface of these extraordinary banks might grow a few millimetres each year, then get frozen solid over the winter and then the following year grow a little more from where it left off. In such tiny increments, moss banks almost three metres deep have formed on Elephant Island in the South Shetland Islands, a site perhaps more famed for its role in Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance expedition in 1916.
In other locations the banks are shallower and younger, but this makes them no less significant in scientific terms. In January and February this year I was privileged enough to head south with the aim of collecting cores from Green Island, a site that the field team had been unable to access the previous year due to thick, impassable and unseasonable pack ice surrounding the island. Green Island is an Antarctic Specially Protected Area on the basis of its moss banks, which are the southernmost significant banks, some metre or so deep. The few known example further south struggle to reach half that depth. You can read about that field season in our NERC Planet Earth magazine article, located on our outreach page, or on the project blog. I would particularly recommend the post about my physical state crossing the notoriously rough seas of the Drake’s Passage!
Of course, there is an important underlying scientific reason why we are studying these Antarctic Peninsula moss banks. Over the past 50 years or so, meteorological records have shown that the Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming regions on Earth, with increases in annual temperature of 3°C since the 1950s and even higher rates for winter in some locations. This warming has been associated with a range of impacts including decreased sea-ice extent, ice-shelf collapse and glacier retreat. You can find out much more about this on the excellent Antarctic Glaciers website.
However, what the recent warming lacks is a longer term context; a key question in understanding and attributing Antarctic climate change to particular forcing factors is whether the recorded changes are unusual compared with past natural climate variability. This is where we come in. We’ll be using a transect of moss banks stretching over ten degrees of latitude to study the spatial as well as temporal variability in past climate. Please visit our project website to find out much more.