#ClimateChange and the devastation of Antarctica’s vulnerable wildlife

The catastrophic effects of #ClimateChange are being felt around the world, and even if we dramatically curb our greenhouse gas emissions in the near future, generations to come will still have to deal with the damage we’ve already caused. Droughts, floods, food insecurity, clean water scarcity and the continued extinction of wildlife are among the many consequences resulting from our rampant abuse of fossil fuels and the natural environment.

No place too remote for global warming

One of the places worst hit thus far is the Antarctic; temperature increases in the region are amongst the highest in the world, and the rate of ice loss has tripled in the past 5 years. Between 1992 and 2012, Antarctica lost 76 billion tonnes of ice per year – since 2012, this has increased to 219 billion tonnes.

Watch – Breathtaking Antarctica. Video by Kalle Ljung.

Whereas the frozen continent’s contribution to rising sea levels is of great concern, the profoundly negative impact on its fauna should be raising alarm bells the world over. Various species of penguins, seals, seabirds and whales are at severe risk as their food supplies and breeding grounds are threatened by rapid ice loss.

The foundational species of the food chain is quickly disappearing

Small but vital – Antarctic krill. Image courtesy of Uwe Kils @Wikipedia.org

The problems created by ice loss start at the very bottom of Antarctica’s food chain. As the hours of sunshine in the Antarctic region are high in summer months, phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) grows readily, providing food for the krill population. Krill, in turn, are vital to the diet of several species, including penguins, seals, whales, fish and seabirds. The melting ice exposes krill to UV light, and impedes the conditions necessary to produce large populations of this fundamental food source. To make matters worse, past and present over-harvesting by humans further depletes numbers.

Penguins

The Emperor (left) and Adelie (right) penguins. Images courtesy of Pixabay.com and Andrew Shiva @Wikipedia.org

Antarctica constitutes the breeding grounds for four penguin species – Emperor, Adélie, Chinstrap and Gentoo. The Emperor and Adélie penguins are ice-dependent, and ice loss has already decimated Adélie colonies as it compromises breeding grounds, safe resting areas, migratory routes, moulting grounds and their ability to forage. In just one research area, the Adélie population has decreased by 65% over the past 25 years. Emperor penguins may well soon endure a similar devastation; in the Terre Adélie area, for example, they are already considered high risk by researchers. In contrast, the Chinstrap and Gentoo penguins, not being ice-dependent, are colonising ice-free areas and replacing the other two species. This could be detrimental to the functioning of the larger ecosystem.

Seals

Crabeater seals. Image courtesy of the National Maritime Museum (Greenwich, UK) @Wikipedia.org

Ever since humans penetrated into the Antarctic, seals have been hunted and numbers have dwindled to mere shadows of what they once were. The Elephant and Fur seal are not ice-dependent, so retreating ice isn’t as grave a situation as it is for the Crabeater, Leopard, Wendell and Ross seals. The latter species rely entirely on ice for the provision of safe reproductive conditions and food – particularly fish and krill.

Whales

Humpback whale and calf.

As with the Antarctic seal population, whaling came close to driving whale populations to extinction. Humpbacks, for example, reached a possible low point of just 1 000 survivors of the unregulated hunting that began in earnest in the early 20th century. Blue Whale numbers, similarly, decreased to the point where experts believed that extinction was inevitable owing to the fact that survivors would have to travel too great a distance to find a mate.

The largest mammal that ever lived – a Blue Whale. Image courtesy of NOAA Photo Library @Wikipedia.org

In terms of #ClimateChange, however, Humpbacks and Blue Whales are less at risk than Killer and Minke Whales, which are ice-dependent. Warming ocean temperatures and depleted food sources like krill could be a major contributor to population numbers that, according to research, may be suffering the same fate as those of the Adélie and Emperor penguins.

Consequences beyond Antarctica

All of this should demonstrate, unequivocally, that a tragedy is unfolding before our eyes. But the consequences of destroying Antarctica’s fragile ecosystem extend far beyond the frozen continent. Christine Evans, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Sustainability Management Programme, writes:

Even though Antarctica is remote and can seem far removed, the changes that are underway will not only affect the species that live there, but because many of the continent’s species are migratory, [the changes] may have ripple effects in oceans around the globe.

This is not an ominous warning we should ignore.

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