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    Colombia looks for signs of climate change in Antarctica

The Colombian Navy ARC 20 de Julio ship traveled to Antarctica with the only Colombian oceanologist Nancy Villegas. Her scientific luggage was merely a GPS, a professional camera, a geology hammer and a handheld meteorology device. With this device, Villegas measured air temperature, wind intensity and direction, relative humidity, due point and barometric pressure. With the camera she took pictures of the clouds, the status of the sea, waves, and visibility; the hammer was used to obtain rock samples. And with equipment of the ARC 20 and the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH, for its Spanish acronym) she analyzed sea clarity, temperature, salinity and obtained bathymetric data.

This wealth of data will turn into inputs for numeric analyses and modeling of the water of the Strait of Gerlache, with the purpose of establishing how they compare with the waters of the Colombian Caribbean and Pacific as a consequence of interaction between several oceanic-atmospheric phenomena, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation, the Pacific, and Antarctic and Southern Decadal, which is responsible for the El Niño and La Niña phenomena.

The research of the Colombian Caribbean and Pacific waters was extended to include the Antarctica, where Villegas hopes to obtain inputs to contribute elements to make more accurate climate predictions –especially now with global warming–, allowing scientist´s to predict climate threats such as hurricanes which recently caused havoc in the Caribbean islands.

Although it is surprising that it is necessary to travel to Antarctica to analyze climate and other phenomena which could occur in Colombia, this UNal-Bogotá professor was quick to clarify any concern. “The behavior of the ocean of Colombia is influenced by teleconnections, in other words, the relationships (or links) between climatic anomalies in distant zones. In this regard she recalls that researchers have discovered that the Antarctic Oscillation impacts the intensity and the beginning of the Monsoon season in India; and they have also established that this atmospheric variability is also linked to Atlantic and Arctic Oscillations, and even other studies indicate there is an important modulation between this Oscillation and the El Niño phenomenon. Therefore it is not unrealistic to travel to Patagonia to research processes that could impact Colombian territory, “as maritime currents are not only in one place, air masses move from one continent to another according to temperature, relative humidity, and atmospheric pressure. Furthermore, these processes are cyclic, just like the seasons and may take between five to ten years to occur, changing the salinity, temperature, or sea levels”, she added.

Although it is surprising that it is necessary to travel to Antarctica to analyze climate and other phenomena which could occur in Colombia, this UNal-Bogotá professor was quick to clarify any concern.

Additionally, she asks: If the Antarctic Oscillation is so strong, how is it influencing the dynamics in the Pacific and Atlantic?  If she does find an answer, scientists could understand why there are certain changes in occurrence and intensity of warm and cold events in the Caribbean and Pacific Ocean such as sea levels and other oceanographic and meteorological processes.

Professor Villegas will also research which are the teleconnections between three ocean-atmospheric interaction processes: Antarctica, El Niño (which is immersed in La Niña) the North Atlantic and the Caribbean Oscillations, the latter having warm and cold phases.

“It is probable to find an important link between the Oscillation processes of El Niño, the North Atlantic and Antarctica, which would improve the prediction of local phenomena such as hurricanes, droughts, and rains,” she said.

Shared information

The Colombian Arctic Program of the Colombian Ocean Commission approved the project “Thermodynamic variability is surface waters of the Strait of Gerlache and maritime regions of Colombia, linked to global warming and teleconnections between El Niño-South Oscillation, the North Atlantic Oscillation and the Antarctic Oscillation”, for which Villegas carried out the trip to the Antarctic at the beginning of the year, along with a varied group of researchers from different countries such as China, Japan, Brazil, Poland, Spain,  Argentina, and Chile.

For the project, Villegas obtained preliminary information of the first Colombian expedition to Antarctica back in 2015, which helped her to support and share information with other researchers including information on:

  • Temperature
  • Salinity
  • Bathymetric (ocean deepness)
  • Meteorological reports of air temperature, cloudiness, winds, waves and sea levels.

Villegas left from Punta Arenas (Chile) to the small Island of Doumer, where she navigated in smaller boat to the Chilean base of Yelcho, in the South Bay. There she stayed at an INACH shack and share the laboratory and housing with other researchers.

The return was carried out in a Chilean Air Force helicopter to the Chilean government ship which later crossed the Gerlache Strait and the Drake Strait.

A small laboratory

At Bahía Sur, Villegas and a collaborator began a research routine of taking samples at fixed hours during the day at sea level and at a nearby mountain (between 80 to 100 mts (260 – 328 ft) high.

After taking the samples and returning to base, she would download the information to a computer and process it, creating tables and graphs, checking out the photos and classifying the clouds according to their form and how they related to the weather.

She stayed for close to 20 days in Yelcho and also gathered information from the Station Manager César Cárdenas, who also provided data on the installed equipment at 10 and 20 mts (32 and 64 ft) deep in the ocean as well as temperature and luminosity of the sea. “We exchanged data, he needed my data for biological research and I needed his data for my physics studies”, she said.

After analyzing the information they came to the first results regarding the meteorology-marine conditions at Doumer Is. related to winds that prevail in the region: When the winds come for northeast, there is a rainy season, with sleet and strong winds; when the wind comes from the west, the conditions change to sunny days without clouds, rain or wind, in fact very lovely days: “We were surprised of the strong weather variability in such a small place” said Villegas.

Therefore they established that in the northeast part of the island there is a disturbance due to the mountains, which explains why the winds are loaded with so much water: when the winds come from the mountains they are forced and the air mass needs to clear the moisture in form of rain, phenomenon that does not occur when the winds come from the west where there are no natural barriers.

“This natural laboratory allowed us to observe the effects of the mountain and the open sea on the weather,” said Villegas. In her opinion, this discovery also explains the difference between the behavior of the marine wildlife of the area.

Third expedition

The analysis carried out during the first year of research was purely local. However, the information is very useful to feed into the mathematical model Villegas and her husband work with.  Igor Malikov, Nancy`s husband is also an oceanologist engineer and is from Russia.

The expedition called Almirante Padilla was the third Colombian expedition to Antarctica and surely there will be more to come, although next year Villegas will not be present, as she has other international commitments, such as with UNESCO´s International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP). She will be replaced by Javier Díaz, researcher of the UNal Oceanology Research Group which she is the leader. This group is classified as B by Colombian Administrative Department for Science Technology and Innovation (Colciencias, for its Spanish acronym) which is formed by Meteorology masters and Geosciences doctorate students.

“The project that will be carried out in 2018 has already been approved and we hope to submit another proposal for 2019” she said, who is also sure that her contributions will have a positive bearing on the interpretation and projection of climate change not only in Colombian territories and waters but also across the planet.

Villegas highlights the Colombian Antarctic Program, the Colombian Ocean Commission, and interests from UNal in supporting these initiatives hopefully to get attention from Colombian scientists so they may also collaborate and subscribe to international organisms and have greater Colombian participation in Antarctica.

“Precisely for 2020, the purpose of the program is to have a scientific basis, so we need to become more knowledgeable of the region and continue to make science happen,” said Villegas.”