The Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network was created by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1980 to conduct research on ecological issues that requires decades of data and spans huge geographical areas across the globe. In the early 1990’s the LTER Network began a long-term study of the West Antarctic Peninsula (WAP) based out of the U.S. Palmer Station, initiated by a consortium of Universities in the United States and the British Antarctic Survey. Now, following more than 20 years of data collection, the Palmer LTER has just received news that funding has been renewed for another 6 years!
The Palmer LTER is focused on obtaining a comprehensive understanding of the Antarctic seasonal sea-influenced ecosystem – the climate, plants, microbes, animals, biogeochemical processes, ocean, and sea ice south of the Antarctic Polar Front. Since its inception, the central hypothesis of the program has been that the externally-forced seasonal and interannual variability of sea ice affects all levels of the Antarctic marine ecosystem, from the timing and magnitude of primary production to the breeding success and survival of penguins and whales. This is a critical question as the WAP is one of the most rapidly winter warming locations on Earth and is showing the most rapid sea ice decreases in Antarctica. In the Palmer Station region alone, the ice season duration has become about 92 days shorter over the last 35 years of satellite observations. The shifting system is mirrored in shifting ecosystems (plants, zooplankton, and high trophic levels) and the Palmer LTER is focused on the documenting and understanding the underlying processes are driving those changes.
A key publication incorporating 20 years of data was recently published by the LTER community.
The figure below encapsulates many of the changes observed with the Palmer LTER study region (panel A). The two lower panels show the relative differences in the WAP system in the north, which has experienced significant warming compared to the southern sections of the WAP which still is characterised by a truly polar climate system.