The solution to the mystery of climate change is in Antarctica

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This season, the maximum number of scientists since Soviet times - 12 people, seven of whom represent St. Petersburg Mining University - will go to the Russian research station Vostok, located on the White Continent. Forpost asked the university’s rector Vladimir Litvinenko to tell what tasks the polar explorers face and explain whether the research in the coldest place on Earth can help mankind reduce its carbon footprint.

- Dr. Litvinenko, for over 50 years the staff of the University of Mines has been going to Antarctica every year. Why does the university need this? Why do you pay so much attention to it?

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- Vostok research station was founded in 1957, during the second Soviet Antarctic expedition. The scientists faced several tasks at that time - to estimate drinking water reserves on the continent, to carry out geophysical and glaciological surveys. To develop technologies for drilling wells in the ice, without which it would have been impossible, and to create on their basis effective equipment, it was entrusted to specialists of Mining University.

The project was headed by our legendary professor Boris Kudryashov. Today, the drilling complex at Vostok is named after him, and this name is on the maps of all countries in the world. This indicates international recognition of his contribution to the study of Antarctica, as well as recognition of the leadership of Russia and, in particular, Mining University in polar research. I am not exaggerating - for more than half a century we have been carrying out scientific research there at the level of the world’s best practices. And we have achieved impressive results.

Moreover, it should be understood that this is not just a scientific field, but a maximally unfavorable environment for human survival. In such harsh climatic conditions, only we, Russian scientists, were able to drill the deepest hole in the ice cover. This allowed us to penetrate twice, in 2012 and 2015, into the continent’s largest subglacial lake Vostok, which has been isolated from the Earth’s atmosphere for millions of years and take water samples from its upper horizon.

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- The topic of research in Antarctica is of genuine interest to readers, but rather because it looks like a great adventure. What is the scientific significance of your expeditions?

- The fact is that the Antarctic ice cover is made of atmospheric ice. It was formed from solid precipitation - snow crystals that have been falling from the sky for hundreds of thousands of years. They never melt, because even in summer, which in the southern hemisphere, as everyone knows, begins in December, the temperature there, at best, is “minus 20-25 degrees”. That is, this snow, year after year, accumulates, compacts into firn, and then turns into ice, which gradually spreads from the center of the continent to its edges. The one that lies on the surface is newer, and the lower it is, the older it is. At certain depths, its age exceeds 400 thousand years. If you study its composition, you can understand what events took place in the atmosphere during that era and what consequences they led to.

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So, the cores we sampled from the borehole above Lake Vostok, more than 3700 meters deep, allowed us to obtain reliable results in determining the carbon cycle and the Earth’s climate. It was their research that revealed a close link between global climate change and the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the atmosphere. Moreover, this relationship was first traced back over four large, 100-thousand-year climatic cycles. The latter was irrefutable experimental proof of the role of greenhouse gases as amplifiers of initially weak climatic transformations. Those are caused by cyclic variations in the orbital parameters of the planet and the associated changes in the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface at different latitudes in different seasons of the year.

These regularities, which we established together with scientists of the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, fix only the actual state. That is, they do not answer the main question facing mankind: what will happen next? Today, our specialists have identified several objects of research at the interdisciplinary level to obtain new knowledge about the impact of the carbon cycle on the Earth’s climate. They will provide data to make the most accurate predictions.

We are talking, for example, about studying the subglacial lake ecosphere and deep phenomena affecting the Earth’s magnetosphere. That is, on the geomagnetic field, which is a complex and extremely heterogeneous plasma system that generates and propagates various types of electromagnetic oscillations. Science still has only preliminary models of these physical processes. By drilling a borehole to the bedrock and carrying out field studies at the bottom hole, we will be able to improve the quality of measurements of these most complex physical processes and obtain scientific results of another level of reliability.

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- You said that scientists at Mining University have identified a close link between global climate change and the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide. Does this mean that CO2 is our real enemy, and we must do everything we can to achieve carbon neutrality?

- Carbon is the basis of life on Earth. As we all know from school, during photosynthesis trees absorb carbon dioxide and release the oxygen that we breathe. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere determines crop yields, which means that its presence in the air enables us to fight hunger and poverty, which is one of the goals of sustainable development of the United Nations.

Our whole civilization, our whole economy, is built on carbon. We need carbon, without it we are not inhabitants of this planet. The paradox is that it is also the most serious problem of our civilization because it seriously affects the climate.

It’s the fourth most abundant chemical element in the universe. In space, it forms when strong solar winds blow large amounts of material off the surface of red giants, carbon stars. On Earth, most of it is found in rocks - there is a huge amount of carbon concentrated there. The rest is in the ocean, atmosphere, plants, soil, and a small fraction in fossil hydrocarbon fuels.

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- If I understand correctly, are you saying that natural factors, such as volcanic eruptions, affect the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere much more than human activity?

- In our opinion, climate change is primarily driven by natural factors. What do we know about the phenomena taking place in the magnetosphere, about the deep thermodynamic processes of our Earth? Only one thing: that we know very little. The movement of tectonic plates, the transformation of the rate of carbon seepage from the bowels can not only change the temperature but even have a catastrophic effect on the planet.

Let us remember what major climatic transformations have taken place in the past. For example, from the very warm Cretaceous to the glacial Pleistocene. That’s a scientific fact. But no power plants or cars with internal combustion engines, as we understand it, did not exist then.

The earth breathes, releasing CO2, hydrogen, and many other gases, and is a kind of thermostat in the slow carbon cycle. Widespread underlying processes with trap underground eruptions on almost all continents have had a huge impact on global air temperatures, and this has been scientifically proven. A series of chemical reactions, as well as tectonic changes, which we are now witnessing because we can observe the apparent activation of volcanoes, provoke carbon dioxide emissions from the subsurface into the atmosphere. Their volume is tens of times greater than the emission of mankind. Moreover, this is a complex and closed process. The carbon then flows back into the lithosphere through a variety of pathways, including rainwater.

I understand the concern of many experts, politicians, activists, and ordinary citizens about the need to reduce the anthropogenic impact on nature. I completely agree with this. Of course, we must implement technologies that effectively absorb greenhouse gas emissions. But the opinion that the increase in their concentration in the atmosphere is solely or primarily due to the burning of hydrocarbons in thermal power plants is extremely doubtful.

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The physics of the greenhouse effect states that if there were no CO2 in the air, the global climate would be much cooler. It is the carbon cycle, combined with the ozone layer, that keeps global temperatures within certain limits. And the main factor underlying it is the thermodynamic processes that take place inside the Earth. That’s why we need to gain new fundamental knowledge about them and their influence on climate change.

- Let’s turn to the tasks facing scientists at St. Petersburg Mining University...

- The object of our research is, first of all, geothermal heat flows under the ice sheet of East and Central Antarctica. The Antarctic Plate is unique. It borders six other plates and is surrounded by mid-ocean ridges as a result of the collapse of Gondwana (an ancient supercontinent in the southern hemisphere, which included modern Africa, South America, Antarctica, Australia, and New Zealand - ed). Knowledge of the thermal structure of the Earth’s crust and the upper mantle of the Antarctic plate is necessary to understand the processes of Gondwana breakup and plate movement from the late Mesozoic to the present day. It is hard to do this in conditions of a thick ice sheet. The geology of the Earth’s crust and the actual heat flow cannot be studied without our well.

The existing estimates of the Antarctic heat flow were made based on satellite magnetic data. According to many scientists, there is an increased spatial change of geothermal flux under the ice sheet of West Antarctica. The main goal of our research is petrological and geodynamic information, in particular, about the temperature and thickness of the lithosphere at least xx`based on seismic wave velocity data obtained in the borehole. Today no other country in the world has such capabilities. We, Russian scientists, are so far the only ones in the world who can drill to such depths and under such conditions.

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New knowledge of the subglacial geothermal field beneath the Antarctic ice sheet is of universal importance not only for understanding underlying tectonic processes but also for understanding the role that Earth’s carbon plays in CO2 emissions. This is crucial to avoid mistakes in the choice of socio-economic development strategies.

In addition, our research will make it possible to understand whether hydrogen can be extracted as a mineral; whether hydrogen bacteria can act as organics in hydrocarbons; to shed light on the genesis of oil and gas, and even to challenge the claim that they are exhaustible.

- Is someone helping the university?

- Of course, it is almost impossible to conduct this kind of research alone. We are actively involving foreign partners in our work. And I hope that in a year we will organize a serious expedition to Vostok station with the participation of scientists from six countries. In addition to Mining University, the initiators of scientific research in Antarctica are NOVATEK and PhosAgro, and the Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute also actively participates.

For the first time support for local research is provided by the Ministry of Education and Science. Prior to that, it has been an observer for almost 20 years. At the same time, the specialized Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology takes no active part and merely provides funds for the Russian presence in Antarctica. I trust my scientists, they are real miners. We are interested in cooperation and invite colleagues from other countries to join this unique research which will last for many years to come. This season, by the way, a specialist from South Korea will come to Vostok station.

The carbon cycle studies based on the information obtained by the two NASA satellites are called “net primary productivity”. Their monopoly on obtaining information about the impact of the carbon footprint on climate change does not allow us to assess the reliability of findings and the quality of measurements. Therefore, it is crucial that we can obtain the necessary data not from third-party publications, but with the help of various Russian satellites and our studies of cores, water samples, and bottom sediments of Lake Vostok. All this will provide new knowledge about the influence of the Earth’s physical processes on the carbon cycle and, as a consequence, on climate change.