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Over the past 50 years, the Antarctic Peninsula has experienced an increase in air temperature of 3°C. Its west coast is one of the most rapidly warming regions of the planet. This warming is not restricted to the Antarctic landmass but also affects the Southern Ocean.
Climate change has had little immediate effect on the potential for exploiting the Antarctic’s mineral and hydrocarbon resources, unlike in the Arctic region, but it does pose a threat to the region’s wildlife and ecosystem, and therefore may alter the Antarctic geopolitical outlook in the long run.
Ice shelves are floating sheets of ice that extend from continental ice sheets. They produce a significant amount of melted icewater in the summer, and before long begin to collapse. Scientists call this the ‘limit of viability’.
An intensified global warming causes ice shelves that used to be stable to collapse at a faster rate. As these ice blocks are already resting in the ocean, a partial collapse will not affect sea levels, but may considerably speed up the flow-rate of the glaciers behind them. These glaciers, which by definition are fresh water resources, will cause sea levels to rise once they melt. Indeed, Antarctica has lost some 2,700 billion tonnes of ice between 1992 and 2017. This is enough water to raise the global sea level by 7.6 mm on its own.
Krill feed on algae underneath the sea ice. Lower sea ice coverage will significantly reduce the krill populations.
Studies have shown that krill populations have already shrunk by 80% since the 1970s.
As krill is the key prey of Antarctic food web, its decline could have a catastrophic impact on all species, including whales, seals and penguins, that depend on krill as a major dietary item.
The Antarctic is home to some 20 million breeding pairs of penguins. There is no uniform pattern of growth or decline for these penguins. Some species are declining, while others are not.
Changes to sea ice cover in the Antarctic appear to have been largely responsible for the recent decline in the numbers of Adélies, emperors and chinstraps. Changing sea ice conditions threaten the livelihood of penguins by diminishing the number of nesting sites available to them and reducing their food supply, especially the supply of their staple food krill.
Emperor penguins are thought to be one the most vulnerable of all Antarctic species to climate change. They rely on the sea ice around Antarctica for breeding, feeding and moulting. Their behaviour and ecology are being altered by the shifting patterns of sea ice. Studies have shown that the population of emperor penguins has declined by as much as 50% in places. A recent study further suggests that the population of emperor penguins may fall by a catastrophic 99% by 2100.
Antarctica has a unique biodiversity as a result of its isolation from the rest of the world. Stronger winds and storms resulted from global warming will probably push rafting marine and terrestrial life across the Southern Ocean into Antarctica, allowing the invasion of diverse new species which would drastically alter the terrestrial ecosystem dynamics.
For further interests, more information is available from The Antarctic of our sustainability hub.