Key points:

  • Species on Antarctic Peninsula threatened by climate change and human activities including commercial fishing, tourism, and research infrastructure
  • Coalition of over 280 female scientists pushing for a Marine Protected Area ahead of meeting of governments to decide this on October 19
  • These women are part of an initiative to raise the profile of women in STEMM for better global outcomes

The Western Antarctic Peninsula is one of the fastest warming places on earth.It is also home to threatened humpback and minke whales, chinstrap, Adélie andgentoo penguin colonies, leopard seals, killer whales, seabirds like skuas andgiant petrels, and krill – the bedrock of the Antarctic food chain.

With sea ice covering ever-smaller areas and melting more rapidly due toclimate change, many species’ habitats have decreased. The ecosystem’sdelicate balance is consequently tilted, leaving species in danger ofextinction.

Cumulative threats from a range of human activities including commercialfishing, research activities and tourism combined with climate change isexacerbating this imbalance, and a tipping point is fast approaching.

Dr Carolyn Hogg, from the University of Sydney School of Life andEnvironmental Sciences, was part of the largest ever all-female expedition tothe Antarctic Peninsula, with the women in STEMM initiative, Homeward Bound,in late 2019. There, she witnessed the beauty and fragility of the area, andthe negative impacts of climate change and human activity on native species,first-hand. As part of the Homeward Bound program she learnt about thescience, conservation and governance of Antarctica.

In a new commentary piece published in Nature , Dr Hogg and her colleaguesfrom the expedition outline these threats, and importantly, offer ways tocounter them. More than 280 women in STEMM who have participated in theHomeward Bound initiative are co-signatories to the piece.

A global initiative, Homeward Bound ‘aims to elevate the voices of women inscience, technology, engineering mathematics and medicine in leading forpositive outcomes for our planet’.

Women are noticeably absent in Antarctica’s human history, which is steeped intales of male heroism. Female scientists are still a minority in the region’sresearch stations.

“Now, more than ever, a broad range of perspectives is essential in globaldecision-making, if we are to mitigate the many threats our planet faces,”said Dr Hogg.

“Solutions include the ratification of a Marine Protected Area around thePeninsula, set to be discussed on 19 October, at a meeting of a group ofgovernments that collectively manage the Southern Ocean’s resources,” said DrHogg. “The region is impacted by a number of threats, each potentiallyproblematic in their own right, but cumulated together they will becatastrophic.”

Decreasing krill affects whole ecosystem

The Peninsula’s waters are home to 70 percent of Antarctic krill. In additionto climate change, these krill populations are threatened by commercialfishing. Last year marked the third largest krill catch on record. Nearly400,000 tonnes of this animal were harvested, to be used for omega-3 dietarysupplements and fishmeal.

“Even relatively small krill catches can be harmful if they occur in aparticular region, at a sensitive time for the species that live there,” saidDr Cassandra Brooks, a co-author on the comment from the University ofColorado, Boulder. “For example, fishing when penguins are breeding lowerstheir food intake, and affects their subsequent breeding success. A MarineProtected Area will conserve and protect this unique ecosystem and itswildlife, and we need to implement it now.”

Climate change is fundamentally altering the Western Antarctic Peninsula:

  • temperatures reached a record 20.75°C in February 2020
  • the average daily temperature that month was two degrees higher than the mean over the past 70 years
  • almost 90 percent of the region’s glaciers are receding rapidly
  • in spring 2016, sea-ice levels reached their lowest since records began
  • if carbon emissions keep climbing, within 50 years the area of sea-ice will almost halve, and the volume of ice-shelves will decrease by one quarter

As sea ice recedes, populations of larval and juvenile krill, which use theice for shelter and to feed off the algae it attracts, decline.

A warmer climate and less sea-ice cover will also give opportunities toinvasive species, which can enter the territory via international ships,including those carrying tourists.

The lasting tourism and research footprint

Tourism’s footprint is growing. The Peninsula is the most-visited region inAntarctica, owing to its proximity to South America, dramatic beauty and richmarine ecosystem.

__ Tourist numbers have more than doubled in the past decade, with 74,000visiting last year compared to 33,000 in 2009.

“Ships can pollute the ocean with micro-plastics, oils and ship noise,” saidDr Justine Shaw, another co-author from the University of Queensland.

While the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), aself-regulating association that advocates for safe and environmentallyresponsible travel, provides guidelines for cruise ships and tourists, “anincreasing number of vessels that are not IAATO members and that carry up toabout 500 passengers have begun visiting the region, and this is concerning asit adds greater pressure,” Dr Shaw said.

**** While the collection of data and knowledge is important, researchactivities can also potentially damage the Antarctic Peninsula’s sensitiveenvironment, the team stated.

The Peninsula hosts science facilities belonging to 18 nations – the highestconcentration on the continent. New stations and expansions are ever-present.

While these scientific endeavours can increase our understanding of nativespecies’, there can be negative impacts on the region if not properly managed.Dr Shaw explained: “Buildings and infrastructure displace wildlife andvegetation.”

Three ways to protect the Peninsula

**A Marine Protected Area (MPA) designation for the waters

**** The authors endorse a proposed MPA for the western Antarctic Peninsula.Led by Chile and Argentina, this is due to be discussed during a two-weekmeeting commencing 19 October by the Commission for the Conservation ofAntarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a group of governments thatcollectively manage the Southern Ocean’s resources.

The MPA would reduce commercial fishing in ecologically sensitive areas,helping preserve the food chain and ensuring greater sustainability for thefuture in surrounding areas.

A comparable MPA for the Ross Sea, in southern Antarctica, was agreed to inOctober 2016 to global celebration.

**Protect land areas

**** Only 1.5 percent of Antarctica’s ice-free terrain enjoys formal protectedstatus. Much unprotected land is adjacent to research and tourist areas and istherefore vulnerable to human-generated risks like pollution and invasivespecies.

The authors call for a greater extent and variety of landscapes to beprotected.

“Globally, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity have agreed that17 percent of land should be protected to ensure conservation of biodiversity.This is a good starting point for Antarctica,” Dr Hogg said.

**Integrate conservation efforts

**** For conservation efforts to be effective, they have to be collaborative.Dr Shaw furnished examples: “The Council of Managers of National AntarcticPrograms (COMNAP) must work to limit the expansion of research infrastructure.Tour operators’ body IAATO and parties to the Antarctic Treaty System shouldcooperate to better manage tourist activity – ensuring all tour operatorsabide by IAATO regulations regardless of whether they are IAATO members.”

Image: The participants of Homeward Bound Cohort 4, the largest all-femaleexpedition to Antarctica. Photo: Will Rogan

Image: Research station, South Shetland Islands in the Antarctic Peninsula.Photo: Carolyn Hogg

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