The cold in Antarctica, Marilyn Raphael remembers, was so intense that when she removed her gloves to film some quick videos during a research visit, her hands were in pain the rest of the day. “You get frostbite in a heartbeat,” said the geography professor and director of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

To the relief of her fingers, Raphael, who studies how and why Antarctica’s sea ice levels vary from season to season, conducts the bulk of her research from UCLA’s sunny campus in Westwood and not the 70-below temperatures at the South Pole.

In those frigid southern climes, ocean water freezes each winter. That sea ice expands outward from the edges of Antarctica and, together with the continent, creates an overall ice surface area that Raphael estimates is “the size of two continents, two Antarcticas.” In the summer months, from December to February, a large portion of that sea ice will recede, with the amount varying naturally from year to year.

But what’s becoming a concern, Raphael said, is the extent of the sea ice’s contraction in recent summers. Just last month, Antarctic sea ice reached its lowest level in nearly 120 years. And as the ice shrinks, so does the capacity of the ice and snow to reflect the sun’s radiation back into the atmosphere and away from Earth.

“We count on the snow and ice to reflect over 90% of the solar radiation that falls on it,” Raphael said. “When there’s less ice, more solar energy is absorbed by the ocean, leading to warming.” A warmer ocean, in turn, limits the growth and expansion of sea ice, she said.

Antarctica’s sea ice has an outsized influence

Raphael has been studying Antarctica’s sea ice and the complex set of atmospheric factors that influence it — and are influenced by it — for more than two decades. Still, answering the critical question of whether the recent historic low is the result of global warming, she said, will require further research and close analysis of historical trends. 

She and her colleagues have built a strong foundation for those efforts. Working with historical weather and ocean data and previous research findings, they have been able to reconstruct sea ice levels around Antarctica, season by season, and assess their impact on climate all the way back to 1905, despite having reliable satellite data for only the last 44 years. It’s what helped Raphael and other scientists identify this year’s low point as extremely unusual and what helps them build predictive models for the future.

Antarctic sea ice has an impact far beyond the South Pole, Raphael stressed, playing a role in the planet’s large-scale atmospheric circulation and in oceanic patterns as far north as Iceland and the northern Pacific Ocean. Given that, it’s safe to say that impact of her sea ice scholarship is everywhere, although the future of that “everywhere” is, for now, dependent on what happens at the poles. “Polar regions” Raphael said, “are among the most sensitive areas to climate change on Earth,” and close monitoring is essential to health of the planet.

In her satellite-based and atmospheric research, Raphael collaborates closely with climate scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, which is managed by the nonprofit University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a consortium of universities of which UCLA is a member. That UCLA tie, she said, has been pivotal in facilitating her work and providing her access to other institutes doing polar research.

On an international level, Raphael works on modeling and predictions with scientists from the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, or SCAR, which coordinates international research efforts focused on the continent. Her role as chair of a SCAR expert group measuring the properties of sea ice led to her visit to Antarctica in 2011 — an opportunity few people ever get and a one she hopes to repeat. 

Melting sea ice appears on McMurdo Sound in west Antarctica, with sun on horizon in background.
Courtesy of U.S. Department of Energy Atmospheric Radiation Measurement facility
Melting sea ice in west Antarctica.

From Southern California to the southern tip of the Earth

“I feel so absolutely privileged to have been able to go to Antarctica and see all that I was able to,” she said. While there, the Trinidad-born Raphael visited key locations she’d researched for years, from the coasts of the continent to the geographic South Pole. Despite the extreme cold — and Jack Frost nipping at her “camera fingers” — it was an experience of wonder. She fondly remembers all the “penguins coming up to say hello.” 

Closer to home, as head of UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Raphael strives to connect her research and teaching to local environmental issues. Using Southern California and the state as a focus, she, her fellow faculty members and students at the institute are helping to create innovative solutions for the broader world.

Raphael currently serves on SCAR’s Standing Committee on the Antarctic Treaty System — the arrangements governing relations between the more than 30 countries active in Antarctica — and in that role develops scientific advice to support the work of scores international scientists. It is, she said, just one more example of the work UCLA has enabled her to do around the globe, and one she feels proud to be a part of. 

“Anyone who is able to pursue their interests and make it an important part of their life is fortunate,” Raphael said. “I feel that good fortune, and I feel privileged to be able to do it at a place like UCLA.”