Orcas emerge from an ice hole in the Southern Ocean
Photo: John Weller
For a long time, Antarctica was considered an ice desert that only interested scientists, a few fishermen or extreme sports enthusiasts. They are forced to grapple with the hostile environment. But when well-known explorers such as James Clark Ross or James Weddell began to explore the then mysterious continent around 190 years ago, they probably had no idea what role climate researchers would one day attribute to the ice masses around the South Pole.
The fact that Antarctica has a special status can also be seen in the administrative structure of the area, which is almost completely covered by the largest ice mass on earth. The Antarctic Treaty has existed since 1959; it was signed by twelve countries and is still of historical importance to this day. It came into force a good one and a half years later, on June 23, 1961, and stipulates that Antarctica is exclusively subject to peaceful use and should be reserved primarily for research.
The contracting parties meet regularly and advise on the extension of existing contracts or include new ones in the complex contract, which is summarized under the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS). Starting this Monday, experts and researchers will be sitting together in Paris for a few days at the 43rd meeting, just in time for the 60th anniversary of the contract. The international community also wants to advise on the consequences of climate change and the implications for the environment, for example.
This is also urgently needed, warns a group of scientists in a report in the run-up to the meeting. Because the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, or CCAMLR (Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources), as part of the Antarctic Treaty, has still not taken sufficient care of the problem of climate change, the researchers from various disciplines complain . The team includes, for example, the Argentine marine biologist Andrea Capurro from Boston University and the French geoscientist Florence Colleoni from the Geophysical Institute in Trieste.
Climate change, especially in the Antarctic, has a strong impact on the entire earth system. This has recently been shown by new studies. In their report, published by the Wilson Center Polar Institute in Washington and available to SPIEGEL, the team of experts has now compiled the factors that play a role, particularly in the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean completely surrounds the ice continent. Although it is only the second smallest ocean on earth, its connections to the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans have a direct influence on the world's great seas.
By connecting the ocean basins, it regulates the storage and transport of heat, oxygen and nutrients, which from here are circulated around the world by currents.
In addition, the Southern Ocean plays a very important role in the storage of carbon. Despite its comparatively small size, the Southern Ocean contributes around 40 percent to the ocean's carbon sink, which stores CO₂ blown into the air by humans (read more here).
Five interrelated processes
were identified in the report
which mean far-reaching changes for the ecological and climate system far beyond the Antarctic.
rise in sea temperatures
in the Southern Ocean, which drives the decline in the ice shelf floating on the water and could ultimately lead to a rise in sea level of several meters.
Researchers have long warned against this process and the retreat of large glaciers such as the Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica.
loss of ecosystems and biodiversity
due to changes in sea ice.
acidification of the sea
, which as a result of changes in
chemistry and increased uptake of carbon dioxide can lead to disruption of aquatic ecosystems (read more here).
changes in regional carbon storage
It is known that the so-called biological carbon pump, in which CO₂ is absorbed by microorganisms in the sea, will weaken due to the warmer water temperatures.
The fear that
ecosystems will not only
into disrepair regionally but also globally
and that biodiversity will be lost.
Some of the mechanisms mentioned are already known.
For example, a study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (Pik) recently examined the global effects of the melting of the ice masses in West Antarctica and Greenland.
When meltwater enters the ocean, a process occurs that slows the circulation of water in the Atlantic, which is driven by differences in temperature and salinity. As a result, heat would be transported from the tropics to the mid-latitudes and polar regions. The ice of the Antarctic and also the Arctic is therefore regarded by researchers as a so-called tipping element or tipping point, because ultimately the warming process would increase and fuel itself. The earth would get into a vicious circle. Ultimately, severe damage to the Amazon biosphere is also to be feared.
"As we prepare to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty on June 23, there is great concern that this fragile yet vital polar region is approaching a critical tipping point - with serious consequences for all of us," said Evan Bloom , one of the participating researchers from the Wilson Center Polar Institute.
There is a reason that the current report bundles the effects.
For years, environmental activists, scientists and German politicians have been struggling to create a network of protected areas around the Antarctic.
The region basically has a special status under international law due to the Antarctic Treaty and a marine reserve has already been created in the Ross Sea.
But so far diplomatic attempts to establish such a system in the administrative structure of the Antarctic Commission CCAMLR have failed.
The CCAMLR has three proposals for marine protected areas, negotiations on these are still pending.
Embed measures in the administrative structure
It was only at the end of last year that another attempt to establish the world's largest marine reserve in the species-rich Weddell Sea had failed.
The 25 member states and the EU that belong to the Commission did not come to a unanimous result because China and Russia did not go along with them.
The two nations are concerned with economic interests such as fishing and the extraction of raw materials.
So far, they have also refused to create other marine protected areas in Antarctica.
The Weddell Sea is still considered to be a reasonably intact region, in which one can observe how the original climate and ecosystem of Antarctica functions.
Thousands of animal species live there, including orcas, blue whales, humpback whales and emperor penguins.
In the light of the upcoming Commission meeting, the Wilson Report urges that the region be given higher priority and that climate action should be included on the CCAMLR agenda. "As an emergency measure, we have to create a circumpolar network of marine protected areas to protect the Southern Ocean from further dangers," said Bloom. This would give Antarctica some respite while, at the same time, cuts in greenhouse gas emissions could prevent another tipping point. After all, action would ultimately benefit people around the world.
Specifically, the researchers propose to integrate considerations on climate change into all protective measures, for example into the existing fisheries management
Species that are more severely affected by climate change need better protection.
The marine biologist Antje Boetius, director of the Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, who was not involved in the Wilson Center Report, praised the work of her colleagues.
It is the first time that the importance of the region with important factors for climate and species protection has been summarized so comprehensively, said Boetius.
"The report makes it clear that climate change is already here in Antarctica and is not just a threat to the future."
According to Boetius, it is precisely the disturbing changes such as the rise in seawater temperatures and its negative effect on ice cover that are creating new desires, as has already happened in the Arctic. If summer sea ice also decreases in the Weddell Sea, there could be more fishing and tourism. Some nations would like to use this. In the Weddell Sea, fishing was simply not possible because there is ice there all year round.
For some time now, researchers have been observing changes in nature. For example, the stocks of Antarctic krill fluctuate, the crustaceans are the food source for many animals such as whales. It is not yet known exactly why this happens. What is certain is that even the smallest changes can have an impact on the complex ecosystem. But for years, krill has been fished commercially in the Antarctic to make preparations of omega-3 fatty acids. And the receding ice makes it easier for fishermen to get to the animals.
Boetius warns of the risk of disruption from interventions such as fishing and possible accidents.
The fact that science does not yet know the exact reasons for the fluctuations in stocks should not be used as an argument to further expand fishing activities.
"Nature needs a relaxation room," she says.
There must therefore be protected areas as soon as possible that can only be covered by the Antarctic Treaty.
She does not like to judge whether one can get a step further in Paris.
But at least nations like China have recently spoken out more clearly in favor of climate protection.
At the negotiating table, you can show how seriously you mean it.
It would be a good exercise for the climate conference in Glasgow in November, because there too it will be about the Southern Ocean.