Saving the World’s Last Great Wilderness

Most of us will never make it to Antarctica, the ice-covered continent at Earth’s southern tip. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore its pressing environmental challenges, says Claire Christian, the executive director of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition.

The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest-warming regions, with average summer temperatures climbing 3 degrees C in the last 50 years. That’s bad news for Adélie penguins, whose populations have declined by as much as 90% in some areas. It’s also affecting the Southern Ocean, which plays a large role in the global ocean circulation system on which we all depend.

Unlike every other continent, Antarctica has no national government. Rules for fishing, tourism and protections for the environment come from treaties signed by several dozen countries. While consensus-based governing comes with challenges, Christian says that international cooperation in the region could be a model of how we deal with global climate challenges.

But first, we have to get things right there.

We spoke to Christian about the region’s most pressing threats, the animals beyond charismatic penguins who reside there, and what the international community needs to do to protect it.

What’s it like to visit Antarctica?

When you’re down there, you feel like you’re a guest.

I think in many parts of the world, we treat nature as if it’s something we need to manage or something that we allow to flourish or don’t allow to flourish, depending on our needs. But when you’re in Antarctica, there are a lot of rules you have to follow to make sure that when you’re observing wildlife, you’re not disturbing them. You don’t want to get between penguins and seals and the ocean, for example, because they’re trying to go feed their young. Penguins take pretty regular paths, which they refer to as “penguin highways,” and you’re not allowed to block a penguin highway.

Feeling like a guest is an unusual experience for most people. I think it’s actually a nice reminder of how we could interact with the natural world in a different way. Instead of assuming that we can go everywhere, we can try to think about how we can step back and let nature thrive, rather than trying to figure out how much of the forest will we tear down today.

Photo: Torsten Dederichs

How is warming changing Antarctica?

There are some temperature records that have recently been set in the Antarctic Peninsula. We’re learning more and more about how various glaciers and ice sheets are becoming more unstable. We’re also seeing direct impacts to wildlife.

Adélie penguins and chinstrap penguins are declining in some of their colonies, and it’s largely thought to be due to warming. We’re still trying to understand how climate change will affect krill, which is the primary food source for a lot of penguins. We’re even seeing changes in the chemistry of the ocean due to ocean acidification.

We like to think of these animals as being very tough because they live in one of the harshest environments on the planet, but at the same time they can be very vulnerable to disturbance.

They’re adapted to live in very cold climates, so when it gets warmer, for some species that actually changes their environment so much that it’s harmful to them.

We’re seeing massive changes and shifts in every aspect of the ecosystem. There will be some species that can adapt, and there will be some that can’t. It’s a big question mark as to what Antarctica will look like in a few decades if we don’t reduce our carbon emissions.

Penguins get a lot of attention — but what about some of the other species?

We see penguins, seals and whales on the surface, and even maybe a few fish occasionally, but the majority of the species in Antarctica are underwater. A lot of them live on the sea floor on or near the sea floor, so they’re not very visible to the naked eye. But when we do get down there, we’re finding a lot of incredible biodiversity hotspots.

Recently one of our member organizations, Greenpeace, took a submersible down on some deep dives in the Weddell Sea. They found what are called “vulnerable marine ecosystems”: basically, dense aggregations of underwater species. That includes sponges and starfish and all kinds of things.

German scientists in the Weddell Sea also recently found the largest site of fish nests on the planet. There are icefish that build little nests on the seafloor to lay their eggs and tend to their young. It’s not a very common phenomenon, and it was previously thought to be limited to maybe a few small sites. Instead they found millions of nests.

It’s a great example of how much is out there in Antarctica — all these weird and wonderful creatures. There are starfish that have a lot of arms and will sometimes dangle a few out to catch a little krill from the water. That’s a very kind of unusual behavior as well.

There’s also the colossal squid, which hardly anybody ever sees because they’re so cryptic and mysterious.

Every time we send submersibles or cameras down there, it seems like we’re finding new hotspots for life. That really drives home to me how important it is to protect Antarctica. We may be causing changes to all these very cool and unique species without even realizing it, because we don’t even know they’re out there.

What are some other threats?

The biggest threat is global climate change. And that’s something that we can’t stop just in Antarctica. Action for that has to be taken on a global level.

But there are a lot of things that can be done locally in the Antarctic to improve the resiliency of ecosystems, particularly at a time when interest in fishing and tourism is growing.

This coming tourist season, there’s predicted to be over 100,000 tourists. That may not sound like a lot, but it would be the first time that many have gone there in a single season. And they’re all going to the Antarctic Peninsula, which is one of the fastest-warming areas on the planet.

There’s also an interest in expanding the krill fishing industry. Coincidentally, most krill fishing takes place in the Antarctic Peninsula, where all the tourism is happening, where the climate change is happening. It often takes place in the very same areas where penguins, whales and seals like to feed, because that’s where the most krill are.

If you’re looking at this big, vast continent and thinking, How can a few thousand scientists, 100,000 tourists and a few fishing boats make a difference? The important thing to remember is that a lot of this is concentrated in very small places and places that are already under stress from rapid climate change.

We need to be precautionary. We need to make sure that if we’re fishing, it’s not too much in areas where penguins like to feed, because fishing boats can go somewhere else and get more krill. Penguins can only travel so far in a day, and if they don’t get enough food, their chicks aren’t going to make it.

With tourism we need to be making sure that it’s being planned in a systematic way that looks at where the ecosystems are being the most affected by climate change and making sure that we’re not steering people towards sensitive areas.

A single human footprint can last for decades there. So it’s really important that we get it right.

How do you do that in a place with no national government?

There are a few treaties that govern most of the activities in Antarctica. There’s the Antarctic Treaty and the Environment Protocol that deals with things like tourism and scientific research. It’s not exclusively terrestrial, but its main focus is on activities that happen on land.

Then there’s the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which, as the name implies, is designed to look at activities that are happening with respect to the marine ecosystem. That’s mainly fishing.

The countries that signed those treaties meet once a year for each treaty and make decisions.

The treaties have a lot of great principles in them. The Antarctic Treaty and the Protocol have a whole annex on how to set aside protected areas to accomplish a number of conservation goals, like protecting biodiversity.

It has all the underlying legal framework to do that, but it’s not really being implemented very quickly. And the same thing with CCAMLR. It has conservation measures that allow for the establishment of marine protected areas, but so far they’ve only established two.

Many of the countries within the treaty system want to take action. But both of those treaties are consensus based. That means one or two countries can block any decision. And unfortunately, that’s exactly what we’re seeing. We’re seeing a lot of countries that understand the threat of climate change — they understand what the treaties can do to build resilience for ecosystems — but all of their proposals are blocked because a few other countries don’t want to take action. They don’t want to limit fishing options — that kind of thing.

For example, at the most recent Antarctic Treaty meeting, there was a proposal to designate emperor penguins a specially protected species because they’re highly threatened by climate change. That proposal didn’t go through because China objected to it. Marine Protected Areas most recently have been blocked by Russia and China.

It’s very frustrating when you have generally a lot of goodwill and a lot of countries that are committed to the protection of Antarctica, but they can’t make progress even as we’re experiencing a global climate and biodiversity crisis.

Photo: Henrique Setim

What would you like to see happen?

The Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition supports the 30×30 goal of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030. Antarctica is in the Southern Ocean, which is 10% of the global ocean. We need to have more Marine Protected Areas there to help meet the global goal.

There have been proposals for protected areas in the Antarctic Peninsula, the Weddell Sea and East Antarctica that would go a long way towards building a network of Marine Protected Areas that fully represents the biodiversity of the Southern Ocean. But those proposals have been on the table for a number of years, and they haven’t been adopted due to a lack of consensus.

Right now, obviously, we’re in a difficult geopolitical situation with the invasion of Ukraine. I think that’s making a lot of international cooperation on major environmental issues — whether it’s Antarctica or anything else — kind of difficult.

We hear a lot about urgency on climate matters, but it’s not reflected in the policies that are being implemented. We really need our leaders to make this a priority, even though there are many other very important priorities right now. What’s the point of surviving the global pandemic if we’ve destroyed the life support system that keeps us healthy?

What we really need is big action. We don’t need a commitment to more electric vehicles. We need meaningful protections that stop biodiversity loss and dramatically reduce our emissions.

Even though Antarctica is far away, what happens there doesn’t stay there. The Southern Ocean is a major part of the global ocean circulation system. Antarctica is kind of like the world’s refrigerator in a lot of ways. So even you don’t plan to go to Antarctica, and all you want to do is look at pictures of penguins, I hope people feel that Antarctica is part of the Earth that we depend on for our survival. They should let their leaders know that they want action to protect this amazing wilderness that belongs to everybody.

This is an important moment for the planet. Taking action in Antarctica is actually a great way to get started on some of these other goals, because all of the things we need to do require a lot of international cooperation and leadership. We can start in Antarctica and prove that it can be done, and then tackle some of these other problems in other places.

Antarctica is the world’s last great wilderness.

This is a place where we haven’t messed everything up yet. If we do the right things, we can avoid making the same kind of mistakes we’ve made everywhere else.

This piece first appeared at The Revelator and is republished here with permission. Top photo: Cassie Matias.



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