Introduction to special issue

The frozen continent

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Science  20 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6484, pp. 1316-1317
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb5660

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Full moon over sea ice formations during polar night at Atka Bay, Antarctica

PHOTO: STEFAN CHRISTMANN/NPL/MINDEN PICTURES

The earliest recorded sighting of Antarctica was made 200 years ago in 1820, when the first Russian Antarctic expedition, led by Captain Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, encountered what is now called the Fimbul Ice Shelf. In commemoration of that historic event, we present this special issue on Antarctica. The defining aspect of Antarctica is its massive ice sheet. The Antarctic Ice Sheet is Earth's largest reservoir of fresh water, with the capacity to raise sea level by more than 60 meters if it were to completely melt into the ocean. Additionally, Antarctica is one of the great archives of past climate: The EPICA Dome C ice core, for example, provides a continuous record of the past 800,000 years and represents one of the crowning achievements of modern climate science.

This special issue describes the formation of the Antarctic Ice Sheet and the geological processes controlling its existence; the ice sheet's evolution, as affected by its interaction with the surrounding ocean; and how the continent's ice is expected to change in our warming future. We also examine a more biological facet of the region—the mysterious recent die-off of penguins on a remote Antarctic island. Together, the contents of this special issue provide a window into the physical aspects and fauna of this remarkable part of the world.

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