How is climate change transforming life in the Antarctic?

Prof. Dr Julian Gutt, marine biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute.



There is a general consensus among experts that, on a global scale, ecosystems are being damaged most by overuse. In the Southern Ocean, however, it’s not human beings themselves but anthropogenic climate change that is most likely the key driver of change. While initially, intensive warming was only observed in the region west of the Antarctic Peninsula, it now seems to be spreading to the rest of the Antarctic.

While the physical changes are well known and have since become more clearly understood, the same cannot be said for biological changes. Though there is a wealth of basic knowledge regarding the survival strategies of the Antarctic’s marine organisms, there are very few long-term observations on how local biotic communities, adapted to extreme cold, are now reacting to the rising temperatures and dwindling sea ice – e.g. the Antarctic krill. Further, how climate change will impact these biotic communities as a whole, and how it will alter predator-and-prey relations, remain largely unclear.

Accordingly, in our biological research, we not only focus on documenting these changes, but also on gaining a broader understanding of the systems involved and developing corresponding computer models, which will allow us to make ecological projections. To date, conservation efforts in the Antarctic have mainly aimed at maintaining refuges for cold-loving species and avoiding additional anthropogenic stress. Yet in principle, we already know that many organisms are very sensitive to environmental changes due to their adaptation to specific polar conditions. In the meantime, we also know that certain species profit from the warming ocean and melting ice, e.g. thaliaceans, which are now far more abundant on the western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. As such, climate change is also producing some ‘winners’ in the Antarctic.