This two-part blog series takes us on an adventure to the southernmost continent and explores how changes to Antarctica’s ecosystem have worldwide impacts.
Welcome to Part Two: The Continent of Science
Antarctica, the most remote and inaccessible continent in the world, is also, on average, the coldest, windiest and driest continent. Quick Fact: Antarctica is actually a desert! Additionally, with an average elevation of about 7,200 feet above sea level, it is also the world’s highest continent.
There are no native people in Antarctica, but scientists from all over the world visit the continent to conduct research. During the summer, approximately 4,000 scientists visit “the continent of science” to carry out research in a wide range of physical and biological sciences – from the vastness of space to the minutest scale of microorganisms. The research conducted here has helped to highlight global problems, including climate change.
Tourists also visit Antarctica during the summer to enjoy the spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife. In Part One of our two-part blog series, we take you on an Antarctic journey through Sophie Breitbart’s experience aboard the National Geographic Explorer ship. Sophie saw a variety of wildlife during her 10-day educational excursion, including Crabeater and Leopard seals, gentoo and Chinstrap Penguins, Humpback and Killer whales, migrating Red Knots, and more.
Polar tours like the National Geographic Lindblad Expedition help to raise climate change awareness and create lifelong wildlife ambassadors, and the profits from responsibly managed tourism help to fund critical scientific expeditions to the Antarctic.
Just last year, a research mission conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration discovered that sea ice cover in the Antarctic is near record lows – 18.2%, or 520,000 square miles, below the 1981-2010 average. That is the second lowest sea ice report since record-keeping began in 1979, with the first being recorded in 2016. Smaller ice shelves in the Antarctic Peninsula are currently retreating, breaking up into vast fields of icebergs, likely due to rising temperature and surface melting.
Snow and ice make up more than 95% of Antarctica’s surface terrain. The continental ice sheet contains approximately seven million cubic miles of ice, representing about 90% of the world’s total ice. The average thickness is about 1.5 miles. To understand its extent, if Antarctica’s ice were to melt today, global sea levels could rise 150 – 200 feet. It’s massive.
Climate change impacts are already being documented in Antarctica. The Antarctic Peninsula’s glaciers have been warming faster than the rest of the continent. As the snow and ice decrease, the land cover increases and absorbs more heat, which in turn increases the rate of warming. In 2017, a study published in Current Biology found that over last 50 years, temperatures have been rising, and therefore have caused a steady growth of moss on the continent. So, scientists are now predicting that, “terrestrial ecosystems will alter rapidly under future warming, leading to major changes in the biology and landscape of this iconic region—an Antarctic greening to parallel well-established observations in the Arctic.” And, another study by researcher Bill Fraser has reported that Adélie Penguin populations have decreased from 32,000 breeding pairs to 11,000 in 30 years because of the changes in temperature.
Changes to the global sea ice cover reported by NOAA not only carry major implications for the continent of Antarctica, but for the entire world. 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that earth’s climate is warming, and the evidence that the Arctic’s ice caps are melting at an accelerated rate due to climate change is blaring. And, more than 62% of Americans say they are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming. Yet, not many people are taking daily actions to slow global climate change.
We must make every effort we can to limit our own carbon footprint and mitigate climate change. It has been said that there are most likely no greater ambassadors for Antarctica than the tourists who have been there and return home to share information about the need for its protection.
When Sophie returned from her trip, she said “I became an environmental scientist because I have a passion to conserve biodiversity. Being immersed in this wild place and experiencing firsthand the magnificent yet fragile Antarctic landscape acts as a reminder of why it’s so important to do this work. Those memories inspire me to keep at it.”
Sophie Breitbart worked for Princeton Hydro from March 2016 until May 2018, first as an intern and then as a staff scientist. She is now pursuing her PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, where she will study how urban development affects the ecology and evolution of interactions between the plant common milkweed, its herbivores, and pollinators.