Cold comfort: How Antarctica represents two sides of climate change

Cold comfort: How Antarctica represents two sides of climate change

We can no longer call climate change the “elephant in the room”. An elephant in the room is something you either don’t see or ignore. No, climate change is a grey rhino: it’s big, and it’s charging straight at us.

Antarctica represents two sides of climate change.

The first is the impact Antarctica has on the global climate system; this means the charging rhino is no longer running across an open plain, it’s barrelling downhill.

I don’t think people understand that Antarctica is not a single, big landmass: it’s effectively an archipelago under ice, and large areas of what we see on the map of Antarctica are actually below sea level. The ice shelves that connect them are being melted from warm, ocean water underneath. When glacial retreat reaches grounding lines (points where water can get into these deep basins) ice melt will become more rapid and we will have significantly more sea-level rise across the world.

The second side is that climate change is the biggest force affecting Antarctica’s and the sub-Antarctic’s rare ecosystems and wildlife. We’re seeing population loss and ecosystems collapse over very short periods of time. Some mosses are drying, cushion plants are falling over, and some penguin numbers are going down at a dramatic rate. Emperor penguins have just been listed in the USA as a threatened species. Their global population is estimated to become so small that it is effectively doomed to extinction by 2100 … unless we do something about it.

Studying the situation

I was recently the joint lead author on a major paper that documented evidence for ecosystem collapse in 19 example Austral ecosystems. They include the Great Barrier Reef, our arid zones, the great kelp forests around Australia, and various others. And sadly, it included Antarctica too.

Through my science I am seeking the interconnectedness of things and events, including examining the pressures many ecosystems are under and looking for generalities in pattern and response. These pressures can be chronic, like increasing sea temperatures, or they can be a pulsed, short-term, extreme event. We note change, and then see if we can attribute the cause of that change.

We had a heatwave that circumnavigated Antarctica in 2020, for example, and we were able to link it to air masses from the tropics moving up into the stratosphere. Again, in March 2022, there was another extraordinary heatwave in Antarctica, and that originated with a cyclone way off the coast of WA in the Indian Ocean. Moist warm air tracked beneath Australia, and then hit a stationary (blocking) high-pressure system and turned south. Large amounts of warm, moist air flowed over the Antarctic continent and the temperatures went up by almost 40 degrees. Luckily it was in autumn, so the inland ice didn’t melt. But what if an event like this happens again in peak summer?

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Dana Bergstrom in Antarctica. Credit: Author provided.

One of the big things on my mind is turning science into policy and then into action.

Countries have to collaborate to reduce carbon at a much faster rate than what we’re doing at the moment. Policy is not fancy. It’s not a new technology. But the big issue in our lifetime is how you effect meaningful change.

We’re in a decaying system facing overwhelming challenges as countries begin to exceed safe planetary boundaries through things like biodiversity decline, land clearing, climate change and loss of access to clean drinking water. It’s estimated that $1.7 trillion is invested in scientific research each year, and over a million papers of scientific evidence are produced. How do you make use of that knowledge for the common good, such as slowing climate change, solving global poverty, and saving functioning ecosystems that sustain us all?

I think AI can help us. What I see is masses and masses of information. Science and social sciences are revealing solutions all the time. But when you have a million papers coming out each year, how can they all contribute to the big picture? We should be able to train AI systems to seek repeated patterns of success from the vast global literature in all areas of endeavours, including education, economics, food and water, and environment management to inform us how to supercharge our actions.

It’s not yet a hopeless situation. There are many studies showing people are capable of operating in ways that are rational to prevent the depletion of resources. There is potential for polycentric approaches to governance – polycentricity of environmental management is a good thing. Don’t rely on one solution, have multiple solutions.

We added to these arrays of solutions in our ecosystem collapse work. A practical approach to conservation is to enact the 3As. The first A is awareness of ecological values. The second is anticipation – knowing what threats are coming down the line. The last is action. What actions can we take to stop the pressures, including from climate change?

There is an inherent beauty to Antarctica that most people get to enjoy through imagery and some, like me, have been privileged to experience. The creatures in Antarctica are tough – they have been through countless ice ages and greenhouse conditions, so they’ve been selected for survival. But it’s not just about appreciating the penguins and the seals. There are old growth moss beds, lichens and microscopic water bears (tardigrades), and amazing microbes. You can get 50 different genera of microbes living under just one, small quartz rock.

Collapse of any of these life forms would be a real loss to humanity. We don’t have time to lose.

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