Impact of climate change on Antarctica

GS 3 – Conservation, Environmental Pollution and Degradation, Environmental Impact Assessment.

Source : The Print dated 24/05/2021

Context : Recently a new study showed  that if emissions are not cut quickly, by about 2060, the Antarctic ice sheet will lead to a sea level rise that is not reversible on human timescales.
It holds enough land ice to raise global sea levels by more than 200 feet (60 meters).

Importance of Antarctica

Antarctica and the surrounding Southern Ocean are key drivers of Earth’s oceanic and atmospheric systems.

  • about 90 per cent of Earth’s ice (approximately 26.9 million cubic kilometres) is found here, and 70 per cent of all available fresh water is locked up in the Antarctic ice sheet. 
  • Equally important is the Southern Ocean that surrounds the Antarctic continent.
    • connects the 3 main ocean basins (Atlantic, Pacific and Indian) and creates a global circulation system that is largely driven by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC)—the world’s largest current. 
    •  generates an overturning circulation that transports vast amounts of heat. The ACC also takes up a significant amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.
  • the Antarctic environment provides valuable information about climate change.
    • Antarctic continental ice contains climate records extending back more than 800,000 years, which have been obtained from ice cores.
    • the Antarctic environment and biosphere are highly sensitive indicators of present-day environmental change.

Challenges faced by Antarctica

  • Impacts of climate change
    • Antarctica has experienced air temperature increases of 3°C in the Antarctic Peninsula. Although that might not seem very much, it is 5 times the mean rate of global warming as reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
    • Impacts on ice
      • Ice shelves are the floating extensions of a grounded ice sheet.
      • Since the 1950s this is a loss of 25,000 km2 of ice shelf.
      • More calving of icebergs – Eg : A68a iceberg last year,A 76 this year
    • Impacts on sea level
      • Satellite measurements since the early 1990s indicate that sea level is rising at a rate of 3mm per year.
      • If today’s high emissions continued unabated through 2100, sea level rise would explode, exceeding 2.3 inches (6 cm) per year by 2150. 
      • Case study – Tuvalu,a Pacific island nation, could be one of the first nations to be significantly impacted by rising sea levels due to global climate change. The sea level at the Funafuti atoll has risen at 3.9 mm per year, which is approximately twice the global average.
    • Impacts on wildlife
      • There are about 20 million breeding pairs of penguins in the Antarctic
      •  Emperor penguins, which breed on sea ice surrounding continental Antarctica, have experienced a decline in numbers by up to 50% in places.
    • Impacts on marine life :Krill
      • Krill are very important to the Antarctic food web and this decline could threaten whales, seals and penguins all of which feed on krill.
      • A research shows that krill numbers have dropped by about 80% since the 1970s..
      • The decline of krill has been linked to a dramatic decline in sea ice. Sea ice is a vital feeding ground for the huge number of krill in the Southern Ocean
  • Pirate fishing in the Antartic
    • Causes death of huge number of seabirds that drown on long line of baited hooks.
    • Hard to police because of the vast area
  • Oil spills from vessels
    • Due to increased shipping activity
    • Eg. Bahai Paraiso oil spill in 1989 – Even a year and a half after the disaster, scientists continued to observe a drop in seagull, skua, giant petrel, penguin and cormorant populations.
Antarctic treaty
  • Entered into force in 1961
  • Currently has 53 parties.(India officially acceded to the Antarctic Treaty System in August 1983.
  • Sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve
  • Provisions:
    • Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only.
    • Freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end shall continue.
    • Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available.

INDIA in Antarctica

  • Research Stations in the Antarctic
    • Dakshin Gangotri:
      • Dakshin Gangotri was the first Indian scientific research base station established in Antarctica, as a part of the Indian Antarctic Program.
      • It has weakened and become just a supply base.
    • Maitri:
      • Maitri is India’s second permanent research station in Antarctica. It was built and finished in 1989.
      • Maitri is situated on the rocky mountainous region called Schirmacher Oasis. India also built a freshwater lake around Maitri known as Lake Priyadarshini.
    • Bharti:
      • Bharti, India’s latest research station operation since 2012. It has been constructed to help researchers work in safety despite the harsh weather.
      • It is India’s first committed research facility and is located about 3000 km east of Maitri.
  • Recently the 40th Indian Scientific Expedition to Antarctica (ISEA) departed for the South Pole in January 2021.
Way forward

As countries prepare to increase their Paris Agreement pledges in the run up to a United Nations meeting in November, Antarctica has some important messages

  • Nations have to stick to their targets as mentioned in the Paris Climate Agreements – allowing global warming to overshoot 2 C is not a realistic option for coastal communities or the global economy. 
  • Policies must focus on the Antarctic along with the Arctic – Over the past decades, much of the focus on rapid climate change has been on the Arctic and its rich tapestry of Indigenous cultures and ecosystems that are under threat.
  • Enforce strictly the regulations that stop vessels using or carrying heavy fuel oil in Antarctic waters. Spills of lighter-weight fuels could still happen, but at least it will evaporate and disperse more easily, and pose less danger to wildlife, like penguins and other seabird colonies. 
  • Establish a network of ‘marine protected areas’ to ensure sustainable management of fisheries.

Its high time we realize that the huge frozen landmass at the bottom of our planet is more than just a spectacular icing on the globe. It could be vital for our survival too.

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