Researchers brave brutal conditions to research climate change in Antarctica: Part 1

ABC News' James Longman joins a team of researchers as they use state-of-the-art technology to collect critical data from whales in the region, under pressure from a human-altered climate.
10:12 | 05/21/19

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Transcript for Researchers brave brutal conditions to research climate change in Antarctica: Part 1
Longman. Antarctica. The mythical white continent. A daunting landscape seemingly out of this world. It's the closest thing to being in another planet. Where breathtaking wildlife is struggling with a new threat, climate change. Hump back off the bow. Tonight journey to the legendary place once thought out of man's reach. Now struggling to cope with the human altered climate. The scientists in a race against time to protect the seas. We have 12 years to really fight the impacts of climate change and we have to act now. The shocking con Stam nants they're discovering inside the whales. Things like microplastics. And what the wildlife at the edge of the world can tell us about all our futures. Just getting to Antarctica takes time and patience. We arrive in Argentina. The sleepy port town nestled at the foot of the southern Andi's. It's from here we set sail. This is called the town at the end of the world. We're going further south. We've been invited aboard a ship to travel to Antarctica. Ground zero for climate change. After two days crossing the drake passage we navigate what the waters of the antarctic peninsula. Good morning. It's Sunday morning. Welcome to Antarctica. But this frigid landscape can be deceptive. Across the peninsula the ice season has shortened by morn three month over the last 40 years, and 8 7% of the glaciers here are receding. This allows people to come face to face to climate change, seeing science in action. We link up with a nature enthusiast, Monica parker who traveled to Antarctica to celebrate her 40th birthday. It's zero degrees in there. How are you feeling? Nervous. I want to stay in the boat. We all want to stay in the boat. Antarctica is extreme and unpredictable weather. As we near the shore, it begins to snow. There we go. All right. We made it. We've landed on Antarctica. This is awesome. It's cold, but it's awesome. I kind of wish it wasn't Yeah. For now it may be best to leave the elements to the seals and marine biologists. Across the bay a team of researchers are scanning the horizon searching for whales. Today we're going to look for mostly hump back whales, maybe others. We want to be able to biopsy and fly our drone over them to look at body condition and size. Right there. That's up. I see. These marine biologists have come from all over the united States to Antarctica to study the pressures facing the hump back and minke whale population. The biopsies are taken using a cross bow. It will penetrate into the animal and get skin and blubber. We've been sampling since late November. Getting the body condition and sex ratio of animals around here now is really important. It's summer in the antarctic. Prime feeding season for hump back whales who spend months loading up on kril before heading to the tropics to mate and give birth. The arrow makes contact. Researchers assuring us it doesn't hurt the mammal. The researchers collect a few more samples. Southwest is the direction that we want to be basically going. After spending several hours in the biting cold, they head back to the ship. Great job, team. Way to hit it hard with the elements. But their day is not over yet. We're going to go into the lab. We can process the samples. So this first sample we took for a pollutants analysis. This sample can't go in one of the plastic baggies. We're looking for plastic contaminants. It reveals plastics, heavy metals and flame retardants have made their way into whale's bodies. The tendrils of man stretching over here to Antarctica. This is a sample that's all you need for the molecule and hormone work. That's a good sample. You can see the distinct layer between the skin and the blubber itself. Now they go in the freezer and get carried back to California. And their research is already yielding results. A recent report by the wwf highlights whales in the antarctic are facing increased pressures due to climate change. We're racing against the clock to generate a baseline for how the animals behave. They are already compromised in a big way and the E come system is. We need to be down here doing this right now. For people at home they'll be thinking whales are important. We love whales. They're beautiful to look at. It's important they remain on this Earth. But how does it affect me at home? They represent the health of an ocean eco system. To be able to have enough food to support a whale, let alone a population of whales and as citizens of the planet regardless of where you live, we have an obligation to let things be. A landmark report released by the U.N. Revealed that humans are already altering the world at an unprecedented pace. Over 1 million plants and animal species are at risk of extinction. Here in the peninsula many penguin populations are on the decline. The loss of sea ice is affecting their primary food source yrngs and the researchers are using the latest technologies available from satellite tags and drones to determine how declining kril is affecting the whale population. The next day we get to see all of that technology in action. Let's do it. Got it. The team from duke university's marine robotics lab launches their state of the art scientific drone. Hoping to study hump back whales from the air, the team takes us to paradise bay with the weather finally clearing up, this remote cove lives up to it name. Within minutes trained eyes find what they're after. Humpback off the bow. About three quarters of a mile. There you can see the animal there. Just out over here. So about 1:00 off the boat. You can see a little black line. On the surface of the water. I can't believe you saw that. With eyes in the sky, the researchers move in for a better look. Oh, super bendy. They're moving their tail it's like they're flirting or something. This one of a kind technology designed to withstand brutal conditions provides the team with invaluable insight into the lives of these mysterious The pictures we can measure So far the numbers are encouraging unlike most whale species humpback populations are on the rise. One of the primary things I'm interested in is look at the recovery of the animals. Once hunted to near extinction, the populations have rebounded thanks to a moratorium on commercial whaling. Since 2014, 86% of our females were pregnant. That's incredibly high. The humpback is doing really well at the moment? Yeah. They're going like gang busters far we can tell. The team sets out one of the most crucial technologies. Tagging the giants with a tracking device. The guy in front of us looks good. Why is the tagging important? The animal sends such little time at the surface. Studying the animal and the surface behavior only gives a tiny insight. By putting the tags on we can get more of an insight into what the animals are doing the other 90% they're under the water. They inch closer to the giants. The idea is to get to the whale before it wakes up and dives away. But the humpbacks are too elusive. Diving beneath the surface each time the tagging team gets just within range. This is not easy work. We still haven't managed to tag any of the whales. Approaching really slowly and the last second they dip down under water. It goes to show the painstaking work the scientists have to do. When we come back, time is running out. The scientists get one last chance to tag the whales and a close encounter at the end of the Earth.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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