Antarctica holds 90% of the world's ice and, what may seem as a cold and desolate place, is in fact one of the most important wildernesses on Earth and our greatest hope in the fight against climate change. Let's explore what makes this remarkable yet vulnerable place so important:
Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest place on Earth and is the only place in the world to have no indigenous population. Having an area of 14,000,000km2 it's actually the largest desert in the world but, despite its harsh conditions Antarctica has high ecological value, especially for birdlife.
When thinking of Antarctica, we immediately picture penguins. Antarctica is home to 5 of the 17 species of penguin found around the world. Emperor and Adelie are the only 2 species capable of withstanding the harshest of Antarctic battering (-50◦C and 124mph winds), while species such as Macaroni, Gentoo and Chinstrap prefer the more placid northerly areas.
Flickr | nomis-simon
The continent plays host to a range of other birds. Goliaths such as opportunistic Giant Petrel, catching fish and squid when possible but scavenging on seal, whale and penguin carcasses, are also capable of killing Albatross and even King Penguin. 6 other smaller species of Petrel, and 4 species of Albatross, also rely on Antarctica. Taking up to 10 years to sexually mature and most laying a single egg once every 2 years, Albatrosses have the lowest reproductive rate of any bird, making Antarctica crucial to their future.
Failing to protect Antarctica from the climate change we're causing will jeopardise the fate of Antarctica's wildlife, and the consequences by not protecting it will subsequently affect us along with the ecology of the wider world.
Since our planet was able to harbour liquid water there's pretty much been the same amount of the stuff, resting as liquid, locked up in ice or floating as clouds. So to say ice melting gives us more water is a bit of a misnomer. Of course the level of liquid water will be increased, but the physical transit of water from melting ice is not all that's happening in the face of climate change. Major sea level rise is also a result of water expanding on the molecular level as it is heated. Approx. half of the total sea level rise over the past century is due to this thermal expansion.
Oceans expanding via thermal expansion encroaching onto land, and melt-water from consistent rises in global temperature, both facilitate the melting and movement of land ice forms towards the sea. Once there higher sea temperatures will increase the rate of melting, adding to further sea level rise.
Flickr | Stuart Rankin
Perhaps because of its physical distance we seem to put it to the back of our thoughts; out of sight, out of mind. But as the effects become clearer and more dramatic we are forced to confront the issue.
What's happening in Antarctica is the personification of Climate Change; no clearer can the effects and consequences of it be seen elsewhere. A huge 100 mile long, 1000ft wide crack, currently forking its way across the Larson C Ice Shelf is thought to eventually calf a chunk of ice the size of the state of Delaware. This equates to 10% of the ice shelf's total area, which could make the remainder extremely unstable.
Unfortunately, there's nothing much we can do to stop the Larson C calving or the aftereffects, and once the shelf calves will be a major contribution to sea level rise. This has happened before in 2002 with the disintegration of the Larson B Ice Shelf.
While it is among the most vulnerable to climate change it is also one of the greatest natural assets to hinder it. Antarctica has the greatest albedo effect of any surface on Earth, and is the largest concentration of said surface; snow and ice. The albedo effect is the amount of solar heat bounced back into space by reflective surfaces. This is vital for jettisoning unwanted heat that would otherwise become trapped in the Earth's atmosphere. The less ice and snow there is the more heat will aggregate over time, causing even more reflective sea ice to melt and so on, potentially leading to catastrophic Runaway Greenhouse Effect.
This is precisely why Antarctica is so important. Not only for its ecological significance but for the deciding role it plays in what kind of future we'll have. The only thing we can do is to collectively get a handle on climate change; to commit wholeheartedly and internationally. Only then may we have a chance at minimising further damage to this precious ecosystem and securing our future.
By Thomas Phillips - Online Journalism Intern