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Feature - issue #10

Understanding Antarctica

Words by Chris King
With photography by Emma Wilkinson

As the polar regions reach record temperatures, two young climate justice activists head to Antarctica to experience the changes first hand.

“I had a very different idea of what Antarctica was,” says Zanagee Artis, a US-based climate activist, and co-founder of the youth-led climate activist group Zero Hour. Before his recent trip to the region, as part of the 2041 ClimateForce: Antarctica expedition, supported by Global Choices and Vivobarefoot, he envisaged a “vast white field of ice”. But, to his surprise, that wasn’t the case. Visiting the Antarctic peninsula during the onset of autumn, Zanagee and his group witnessed wildlife and biodiversity wherever they looked, he says: “We saw whales almost every day, penguins, seals, and diverse bird life. This vibrant ecosystem rivals that of places like the Amazon rainforest. It’s not a desolate wasteland of ice - it’s actually filled with life which supports the Earth’s climate, and the health of oceans and ecosystems across the globe.”

Zanagee was one of 160 people on the expedition, which aimed to bring together environmental leaders and youth activists from all over the world to help them gain a greater understanding of the polar ice crisis, and give them the tools to share this with the communities they live in. There’s a desire to raise awareness of the fact that the crisis has a global impact, and that polar ice - as distant and intangible as it might be to most - matters to each and every one of us.

One of the most important inhabitants of this remote haven is krill, says Zanagee - a species of crustacean 1-6cm in size, which looks like a small prawn or lobster. Since the 1970s krill populations have declined by 80%, and continuing pressures from climate change and commercial fishing means they are only going to decline further. Antarctic krill is a keystone species - a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment relative to its abundance. It’s a vital source of food for whales, seals, penguins, squid, ice fish, albatross and many other species of birds, and so is fundamental to maintaining biodiversity in the region, and the integrity of the entire ecosystem.

Zanagee Artis with a chunk of ice. © copyright Global Choices.

The interconnected nature of the ecosystems that make up the biosphere means that variations in one ecosystem - particularly one as significant as the Antarctic - will impact ecosystems elsewhere. The loss or reduction in numbers of a keystone species therefore has a cascading effect - not just locally, but reverberating across the globe. As distant as the polar regions might seem, and as tiny and seemingly insignificant a 1cm-long crustacean in the Antarctic might appear, we humans and our societies are not immune to the consequences of our actions, and the resulting loss in biodiversity. As a consequence of human activities, our mark has been left on even those parts of Earth where few humans have ever been.

Environmental communications expert Emma Wilkinson, who was with Zanagee on the expedition as a representative of Global Choices - an organisation that aims to drive action on the ice crisis, prioritising the Arctic and Antarctic global commons - talks about how a phenomenon called ‘the albedo effect’ is of real concern: “As we lose the ice, this contributes to a series of positive [PS1] feedbacks. The loss of ice exposes more and more dark land, which absorbs more heat causing further melting. Ice loss is therefore not only a symptom of climate change, but also a driver of it.”

Watching whales from the Zodiac. © copyright Global Choices.

Emma Wilkinson onboard the Ocean Victory. © copyright Global Choices.

During the time Zanagee and Emma were in Antarctica, both polar regions reached record temperatures - eastern Antarctica experienced temperatures 40C above seasonal norms, which shocked the scientific community. While the worst of the heatwave was impacting the eastern side of the continent, and the expedition was on the western side, Zanagee and Emma did witness rain on several occasions - at a time when ice should have been forming. The weather event caused the Conger ice shelf - a platform of ice measuring around 1,200 sq km - to collapse. The loss of ice shelves allows inland ice to flow into the ocean at a faster rate than normal, resulting in sea level rise. In Emma’s words: “As sea temperatures continue to warm, the ice shelves will be more at risk, which puts the ice sheet itself at greater risk.” Scientists are particularly concerned about the Thwaites ice shelf, which has seen losses double in the past 30 years. Dubbed the ‘Doomsday Iceberg’, if the shelf were to break off completely – which some predict could happen in the next 3 years – it will raise sea levels by around 65 cm worldwide. That in itself would change the global coastline. However, this could increase to 3 m if it were to bring surrounding glaciers with it.

The sea-level rise caused by loss of ice shelves and the melting of the ice sheets will impact coastal communities everywhere through increased flooding, but, as Zanagee explains, the impact will go far beyond this: “Increased instability in one of the coldest places on the planet means changes to wind temperatures and ocean currents globally. It will change weather patterns around the world, resulting in an intensification of the climate disasters we’ve been seeing.”

© copyright Global Choices.

© copyright Global Choices.

We have a far greater understanding of how the Earth’s climate functions than we did back in the 1980s. But with that knowledge comes an ever-growing understanding of just how little we actually know and understand of the staggeringly complex biosphere. We are unlikely to ever comprehend its full complexity, but we know enough to understand the consequences of our actions, and how to take the path of least destruction, moving towards restoration and regeneration. So long as the ice continues to melt, and the krill and all the species that rely on them continue to suffer and diminish in numbers, none of us should stand idly by.

Leopard Seals on Deception Island. © copyright Global Choices.

You can find out more about Global Choices through this link.

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