Antarctica at 200: why the ‘climate decade’ must secure the future for Antarctica

Small dingy full of people on the ocean surrounded by mountains of Antarctica
Photo by Paul Carroll on Unsplash

Following an Imperial Lates event focused on what the future may hold for Antarctica, Richard Knight, former student on Imperial’s MSc Environmental Technology course, blogs on how vulnerable the continent is, how its sensitivity to climate change threatens the world, and how to protect it.  

This year Antarctica celebrates its 200-year anniversary, marking two centuries since it was discovered. Since then, humanity’s interests have largely shifted away from exploiting the continent’s rich aquatic life and mineral deposits, towards protecting this unique environment for climate research. However, as recent research by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shows, the Antarctica we know today will become less and less recognisable as the earth warms.

Polar regions are particularly vulnerable to climate change. Whilst average global temperatures have risen by 1℃, the Earth’s poles have warmed twice as quickly due to a process called polar amplification. The Antarctic Peninsula, for example, saw a rise of more than 2.5℃ in the late 20th century, compared with the global average rise which was 1℃. Importantly, in this context, there is only 1℃ difference between solid ice and liquid water.

Studies show that, as global average temperatures rise by 0.5℃, the Antarctic Peninsula, which extends further North than the rest of the continent, is likely to suffer especially dramatic change. Temperatures here are likely to increase by 1-2°C in winter and 0.5-1.0°C in summer; more icebergs will break away from the frozen land; and there will be a greater risk that non-native species can colonise this otherwise barren continent, threatening Antarctica’s wider ecosystem as they make the most of a more hospitable climate.

What impact will this have on us?

Antarctica plays an important role in regulating the global climate, and changes here will have a big impact on the rest of the world. As well as reflecting the Sun’s rays away from the Earth, Antarctic ecosystems actually draw a great deal of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. Small organisms called Antarctic krill not only support the native penguin and whale populations, they also absorb 23 million tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. According to Rod Downie of WWF-UK, this is comparable to the carbon footprint of all UK households in 2019. However, as Antarctica’s oceans warm up, foreign aquatic life will enter the krill’s habitat and make it harder for them to eat, reproduce, thrive – and perform their important role in limiting climate change.

Dr Bethan Davies of Royal Holloway University of London warns that, as water absorbs 50% of heat from global warming, ocean currents called Circumpolar Deep Water transport warm water up beneath the ice caps and threaten to melt them from below. If this happens, the world’s sea levels could rise by up to one metre. In the UK, this could jeopardise the livelihoods of people living within 10km of the coast, some 30% of England and Wales’ population, not to mention the £130 billion worth of infrastructure, resources and cultural heritage that would also be under threat.

Speakers Bethan Davies, Rod Downie, Jane Rumble and Martin Siegert at the Imperial Lates panel discussion
(c) Jo Mieszkowski

What is being done about to protect Antarctica already? 

The Antarctic Treaty regulates international relations on the continent. Signed in 1959, its 54 signatories have made considerable progress towards protecting the area from being exploited for its resources to the detriment of the ecosystem. For example, in 2016, the Ross sea was made the world’s largest maritime area protected from fishing. However, in recent years, there has been a resurgence of fishing and whaling in Antarctic waters. Moreover, though Antarctica’s minerals have never been mined commercially, this is could change when the Treaty’s ban expires in 2048, and climate change makes mining and oil deposits increasingly accessible and lucrative.

What must be done to preserve the Antarctic? 

Jane Rumble from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office is the UK’s most senior representative to the Antarctic Treaty. Although the Treaty has helped to minimise human influence on the continent in the past, she says the climate emergency is making the future for Antarctica exceptionally fragile. It is therefore vital that the current Treaty continues to monitor, enforce and entrench its current mandate to protect this largely unspoiled ecosystem, and does so in an internationally coordinated way.

Beyond upholding the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty, a colossal effort must be made to cut the carbon footprint of human civilisation to zero. People can make a difference in the decisions they take every day. Campaigns such as the Grantham Institute’s 9 things you can do about climate change aim to give people some ideas of the most effective ways to make a difference. For example, it is crucial citizens use their political voice to call for action on climate change, by writing to one’s local MP or supporting environmental NGOs.

Governments must play their part too, and the upcoming UN Climate Summit in Glasgow (COP26) in November 2020 represents the ideal arena to defend the Antarctica continent. Politicians must take bold, ambitious steps to tackle climate change. This means getting the world’s leading economies to form their own roadmaps to carbon neutrality by 2050 at the latest, while helping emerging economies develop climate-friendly infrastructure, such as for power, transport, heating or cooling. It is estimated $100 billion of investment will be needed to implement this infrastructure, which will also require financial markets to be patient when waiting for these projects to provide strong return on investment; at present, there is a tendency to invest in whatever generates the most profit in the least amount of time, even if it is not the most sustainable in the long-run.

Already labelled the ‘climate decade’ by some, the decisions made between 2020 and 2030 will have serious repercussions in Antarctica. It is hoped that when COP26 arrives in the UK, governments, universities and the general public will have already begun turning discourse into radical action. This must include limiting global warming to 1.5℃ and protecting the Antarctic for the future to come.

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