Montana State University

MSU scientist plays key role in publishing extensive research on climate-driven Antarctic changes

October 19, 2016 -- By Marshall Swearingen for the MSU News Service

Montana State University professor and polar ecologist John Priscu, center, inspects samples from subglacial Antarctica in his lab in Bozeman, Mont., with graduate students Trista Vick-Majors, left, and Alex Michaud. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN — A Montana State University professor recently published extensive research documenting the impacts of a recent climate anomaly on Antarctic ecosystems, providing a glimpse of how the Earth's fifth-largest continent might respond to long-term warming.

John Priscu, a professor in the MSU College of Agriculture’s Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences, co-authored three papers in a special section devoted to the subject in the October issue of BioScience, the flagship publication of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. Priscu played a key role in organizing the papers and brokering them into publication, and he authored the editorial introducing the articles.

"Remarkable changes have been observed in Antarctica over the past several decades, including the rapid collapse of ice shelves, changes in penguin populations, and extreme flooding within the polar deserts of the McMurdo Dry Valleys," Priscu wrote in the BioScience introduction, "Unravelling Ecosystem Responses to Climate Change on the Antarctic Continent Through Long Term Ecological Research."

Co-authored by nearly 20 researchers from 14 institutions, the scientific papers analyze the wide-ranging effects of an intense warming event that occurred during the 2001-2002 austral summer, when climatic cycles, including El Nino, converged. The climate event and its ecological effects were observed as part of the Long Term Ecological Research network, the largest and longest-lived ecological research project of its kind, according to the National Science Foundation, which funds the network. A research site in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Southern Victoria Land, and another at Palmer Station, on the West Antarctic Peninsula, are among the 26 sites that the NSF has established since 1980 in order to collect long-term datasets and better understand environmental change.

According to the researchers, the 2001-2002 warming event had cascading impacts on both the dry valley and coastal environments. Rapid melting of coastal glaciers, for instance, flooded the nests of certain penguin species, favoring other penguin species that nest later in the season. In the McMurdo region, which typically receives less than 5 millimeters of precipitation annually, rapid thawing resulted in flooding and allowed more sunlight to penetrate lake waters, resulting in blooms of phytoplankton.

The Long Term Ecological Research has also documented ongoing warming associated with global climate change, which is occurring faster in the polar regions than at lower latitudes.

"Climate changes in polar regions are amplified, making these high-latitude areas sentinels" for monitoring global climate change, Priscu wrote in BioScience.

According to the researchers, the warming is pushing Antarctica closer to the conditions observed during 2001-2002, suggesting that the continent may be on the threshold of major environmental changes similar to those observed during that event.

"Changes are occurring faster than was predicted only a few years ago, and although the future trajectory remains uncertain, these changes have been projected to alter both marine and terrestrial Antarctic ecosystem structure and function," Priscu wrote in BioScience.

According to Priscu, the effects of warming on the northern Arctic have received greater attention because of immediate geopolitical implications, such as new shipping routes created by thawing ice. But warming in Antarctica, which contains nearly three-quarters of the Earth's fresh water, mostly in the form of glacial ice, could have significant global consequences.

"Despite its importance in regulating our planet’s climate," Priscu wrote, "much less is known about Antarctica."

Contact: Jenny Lavey, communications director, MSU College of Agriculture, (406) 994-7866 or