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Environmental Change & Evolution Programme Summary

A BAS Twin Otter aircraft fitted with aerogeophysical surveying equipment.
A BAS Twin Otter aircraft fitted with aerogeophysical surveying equipment.

Science Leader: Dr Alistair Crame (jacr@bas.ac.uk)


Earth’s environment and life are an integrated system of many parts. These interactions show complex behaviour on all scales from minutes to millennia, rocks to continents and genomes to communities. We need to understand this behaviour in order to make better predictions of future environmental changes.

The Environmental Change and Evolution programme addresses key aspects in the polar regions of geological and ice-sheet structure, marine and terrestrial biodiversity, and natural complexity, that influence the unique role of the polar regions in environmental change and evolution.

Programme Goals

  • To apply and develop appropriate mathematical methods and models for analysing complex natural systems
  • To explain how evolutionary and past processes formed present polar biogeography and biodiversity
  • To determine continental structure beneath ice sheets and assess how it controls ice-sheet evolution and behaviour
  • To survey poorly-known areas underneath the polar ice sheets, in the deep sea, and at the edge of the atmosphere, and compile geological, geophysical and satellite-derived data to generate digital maps of key areas of British Antarctic Territory

Delivering the Results

Biodiversity 'hotspots' in marine bivalve molluscs around Antarctica
Biodiversity 'hotspots' in marine bivalve molluscs around Antarctica

The Environmental Change & Evolution programme will analyse how past changes in the position of landmasses, ocean currents and climate have influenced biodiversity. Using molecular techniques on present-day species and populations, and morphological techniques on present-day and fossil species and populations, it will assess the phylogenetic relationships of Antarctic fauna and calculate when new species have evolved. The Environmental Change & Evolution programme is a strongly interdisciplinary programme that ranges from the present day back through deep time, and will combine biological and geological methods to assess rates of evolution in the polar regions.

Complex climate variations since 100 million years ago. - The cooling trend correlates with ice sheet growth (right) (after Miller et al. 2005 ref )
Complex climate variations since 100 million years ago. - The cooling trend correlates with ice sheet growth (right) (after Miller et al. 2005 ref )

To determine the structure and thickness of ice sheets and the underlying continent, including the Gamburtsev Mountains, the Environmental Change and Evolution programme will use aerogeophysical techniques (e.g. radar, gravity, magnetics). Measurements of physical processes (e.g. topography, substrate, heat flow and hydrology) within Antarctic ice sheets and subglacial lakes, will help to determine how they have evolved through time.

The Environmental Change & Evolution programme will apply advanced mathematical techniques to the study of complex natural systems. It aims to find out whether it is possible to improve quantitative predictions of environmental change, and to reduce levels of uncertainty.

As part of a UK consortium, BAS scientists will drill through 3 km of ice to access subglacial Lake Ellsworth in West Antarctica. The project will test for life within this, the most extreme ultra-oligotrophic environment within the Earth’s hydrosphere.

As part of the international Super Dual Auroral Radar Network (SuperDARN), BAS scientists will deploy and operate a radar at Halley 6 station in order to study the Earth’s upper atmosphere, ionosphere and connection into space.

The Environmental Change & Evolution programme will carry out geological and geophysical surveys of Antarctica and the Scotia Sea (targeting areas where existing data is incomplete or non-existent) and back up field studies with high-precision uranium-lead (U-Pb) geochronology.

National and International Context

BAS has unique capability within the UK to investigate continental Antarctica, the surrounding deep sea and upper atmosphere. Our work in aerogeophysics, geological surveying and sea floor bathymetry mapping in the Antarctic is therefore a major resource for researchers and the UK Government.

Programme information

Science Leader:
Alistair Crame (jacr@bas.ac.uk)

Related NERC Science Themes:
Earth system science
Natural hazards
Climate system

The Environmental Change & Evolution contributes to many international initiatives. We are a major contributor of geological and geophysical survey data to international map compilations including:

  • General Bathymetric Chart of the Oceans (GEBCO)
  • International Bathymetric Chart of the Southern Ocean (IBCSO)
  • Antarctic Digital Magnetic Anomaly Project (ADMAP)
  • Antarctic sub-ice topography map (BEDMAP)
  • OneGeology (digital map of the World)

BAS is a partner in major international research programmes including:

The Environmental Change & Evolution programme contributes to the NERC Earth System Science, Biodiversity, Natural Hazards and Climate System Themes. It addresses, in particular, the Earth System Science high level challenge to understand evolution of life and the planet; the Earth System Science sub-challenge on understanding cryospheric change and its interaction with the Earth System; and the Biodiversity challenge to develop new tools and techniques to describe biodiversity and its function.

Glossary of terms
Dating events in earth history using isotopic compositions of minerals (e.g. lead-206 and lead-207).
Variations of the same element with different numbers of neutrons but the same number of protons (i.e. same atomic number, different atomic mass).
A system, such as a lake, with an extremely low nutrient content and biological productivity.
The degree of evolutionary relatedness between different groups of organisms.
The uppermost part of the Earth's atmosphere, including the ionised layer, above 85km, and its magnetised region which extends to about 70,000 km.
Measurement of properties of the Earth's sub-surface from an aircraft. In polar environments it often includes ice-penetrating radar, magnetics, and gravity.
The layer of solid, brittle rock making up the outer shell of the Earth.