*Watch the full interview with Associate Professor Rob McKay in the video player above*

With the mercury rising to uncomfortable levels in places around the country, a New Zealand scientist is leading an international expedition to Antarctic waters to discover how warming oceans will affect the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and what that means for rising sea levels, global weather systems and marine life.

Victoria University of Wellington geologist Associate Professor Rob McKay is heading the 30-strong team of scientists from the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) aboard the JOIDES Resolution, a 140-metre-long scientific research ship operated by the IODP, to collect drill samples from earlier, warmer times in the continent’s history.

“We plan to spend nine and a half weeks down in the outer Ross Sea to drill six geological drill sites — each of which could be up to a kilometre below the sea floor,” says McKay.

“We want to understand how the ocean and the ice sheets interact. So what happens when you put warm water next to the ice sheets? Do they melt? If so, how quickly do they melt? And what’s the impact of that melt on the oceans?”

By drilling down so deeply into the sea floor, the team will be able to get a glimpse into the past — up to 20 million years ago — and “greenhouse worlds” that contained the same level of carbon dioxide currently in our atmosphere.

“Using these geological records to see what the planetary response was to the current carbon dioxide levels means we can better understand what the scale of change could be for us, and what the earth is capable of in a warmer world,” says McKay.

If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt — as it has in the past — McKay says the global sea level would rise about three metres. The impact from the collapse of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet would be even more dramatic, as it contains enough ice to cause an estimated 20-metre rise in sea levels.

“The consequences of that for coastal living, globally, are obvious, but we’re also trying to understand the implications for the biosphere in the Southern Ocean. This is one of the largest biological habitats on the planet and we don’t know how it will respond to these changes,” says McKay.

No stranger to the coldest, driest, windiest continent on earth, McKay travelled to Antarctica when he was just 20 years old for his first-ever overseas trip, and has returned a number of times since to conduct research.

After a hiatus of almost eight years, he is back again, gathering material “likely to inform global research for many years to come”.

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