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A new study using satellite mapping technology has revealed 11 previously unknown emperor penguin colonies in Antarctica, increasing the number of known colonies by 20%. The results provide a vital benchmark for monitoring the impact of environmental change on the populations of penguins.

Published in the journal Remote Sensing in Ecology and Conservation, researchers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) used images from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite to locate the Emperor penguins. They were spotted by the distinctive red-brown guano patches the birds leave on the ice. 

Three of the 11 new Emperor penguin colonies had been previously identified but never confirmed, taking the number of colonies around the world to 61. Surprisingly, two of the colonies were discovered on sea ice that has formed around icebergs grounded in shallow water, which has never been observed before. 

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new emperor penguin colonies
The smudges on the ice show the new emperor penguin colonies. Image taken from the European Commission’s Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellite.

Emperor penguins need ice to breed and as such, are located in areas that are difficult to study because they are remote and often impossible to access with temperatures as low as -50°C. 

Dr Peter Fretwell, a geographer at BAS and lead author of the study, says, “This is an exciting discovery. The new satellite images of Antarctica’s coastline have enabled us to find these new colonies. And whilst this is good news, the colonies are small and so only take the overall population count up by 5-10% to just over half a million penguins or around 265 500- 278 500 breeding pairs.”

Unfortunately, most of the new Emperor penguin colonies are situated in locations that are likely to be lost as the climate warms. The researchers warn that these birds may be the ‘canaries in the coal mine’ and so need to be studied carefully to determine changes in the environment.

By next month, the researchers will direct satellites with very high, 30cm-resolution cameras over the colonies to enable the penguins to be counted. 

Previous studies say that 80% of colonies will decrease by more than 90% by 2100 if sea ice in Antarctica decreases by half. Even if temperatures increase by 1.5°C, the best case scenario, the population will decrease by at least 31% over the next three generations. 

On June 18 2019, the Canadian government declared a national climate emergency. The following day, the same government approved the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion, capable of transporting close to 600 000 barrels of oil per day from Alberta to the port of Burnaby in British Columbia. This is an example of how Canada is a climate hypocrite, where the government claims to prioritise the environment but its actions have the opposite effect, choosing to instead prop up fossil fuels.

Canada, which is in close proximity to Antarctica and is partly located within the Arctic Circle, is extremely vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Declaring a state of climate emergency was a necessary response from the Canadian government in tackling the climate crisis. 

This year, a prolonged heatwave in the Arctic that caused temperatures to soar to 38℃ in parts of Siberia, also caused wildfires to rage through parts of Siberia, as well as Canada, Alaska and Greenland. In June, fires in the region emitted 16.3 million tons of carbon- or about 60 million tons of carbon dioxide, the highest levels since 2003 and almost nine times more than the same month in 2018. Since the polar regions are warming at a faster rate than the rest of the world, this puts Canada further at risk.

However, the approval of projects like the Trans Mountain pipeline completely contradict the nation’s goal of reaching zero-net carbon emissions by 2050. A statement issued by the Canadian government outlined that the profits generated from the Trans Mountain pipeline will aid renewable energy projects and support cleantech research within the country, prompting critics to accuse the government of hypocrisy as the pipeline would be emitting large quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further exacerbating global warming. 

Controversy: Canada’s Prime Minister 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won his second election by forging solidarity with environmentalists and climate activists, saying that he shares the same view in needing to act in favour of the climate and strive for a greener society. Interestingly, in 2017, Trudeau spoke to Texan oilmen, saying that “no country would find 173 million barrels of oil in the ground and leave it there.” This would mean that Canada, home to 0.5% of the planet’s population, would plan to use nearly a third of the planet’s remaining carbon budget through intensive use of fossil fuels. While it is very possible to change stances on the issue of the climate crisis when confronted with indisputable evidence, in February this year, it emerged that the government was likely to approve the Teck mine, 181 sq km of petroleum mining, located just 25km from a national park. Canadian authorities were aware of the potential environmental harm it would cause, but ruled that it was nonetheless in the ‘public interest’. Thankfully, the mining giant withdrew its plans later that month, but it sealed Canada’s fate as a climate hypocrite. 

You might also like: Australia’s Plan to Tackle The Climate Crisis Could Create Nearly 80 000 Jobs

Expected Projects 

Despite many delays, three major pipeline projects are expected to enter service by the end of 2023- namely, TC Energy Corporation’s Keystone XL, Enbridge’s expansion of its Line 3 and the Canadian government’s expansion of the Trans Mountain line.

The three pipelines have already encountered challenges; the Line 3 project continuously faces opposition in Minnesota, where it hopes to expand to, while the Keystone XL project is tackling legal challenges and the Trans Mountain remains disputed by indigenous and aboriginal communities in British Columbia.

Environmental risks of such projects range from water contamination to wildlife habitat disturbances. Provinces and cities have voiced opposition to such projects. Vancouver filed an empirical report on how the Trans Mountain project is ‘not worth the risk’ because ‘tanker traffic spills would be devastating to the coastline’ and in British Columbia, the controversial Bill C-48 issues a suspension on oil tankers carrying large quantities of crude oil along the northern coast to protect the ecosystem. 

New pipelines breach demand levels required under the Paris Agreement. Canada has struggled to establish their natural resources development plans in shifting towards a greener society and divesting from fossil fuels. The Canadian government’s support for proposed pipelines and pipeline extension projects risk the country’s reputation of being one of the few who have shown strong leadership in addressing the climate crisis. 

Carbon Tracker, an independent financial think tank that assesses climate risk, conducted an analysis on the impact of Canada’s pipelines, and found that new oil sands are unnecessary in a low carbon world. The analysis showed that additional pipeline capacity significantly exceeds supply levels across two low carbon demand scenarios, meaning that large portions will end up wasted or underutilised, resulting in stranded assets. Even in the case where new pipelines have lower crude transportation costs and reduce pricing, for example, the entirety of Canada’s unsanctioned oil sands projects would still not comply with a Paris-aligned world of weaker oil demand. 

All proposed new pipelines from Western Canada, primarily Keystone XL and Trans Mountain expansion, do not comply with a Paris-compliant world, the report stated. Under the International Energy Agency’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS), for instance, all future oil supplies from Western Canada can be accommodated by alterations and replacements made to already existing pipelines- demonstrating there is no need to build new pipelines. Even if greater pipeline capacity is reduced due to quality and transport challenges, and comply with the requirements of a greener society, new projects will remain uneconomic under the SDS, and therefore the appropriateness of such pipeline projects should be reconsidered. 

The analysts highlighted that the scenarios used in the report still fall short of the Paris Agreement target to limit global warming to 1.5˚C. The analysis showed that the first scenario, the SDS limits warming to 1.7-1.8˚C and the second scenario, Beyond 2 Degrees Scenario (B2D2), to 1.6˚C. 

Economic Viability of Oil Projects

The report stated that ‘investors in oil sands face depressed cash flows in a low carbon world of falling oil demand and weak pricing, but will be forced to produce or pay the price due to inflexible “take-or-pay” transport fees for excess new pipeline capacity’. 

Furthermore, the Canadian government’s stakes in Keystone XL and Trans Mountain could rely on public tax money, which would be far better spent on environmentally friendly and sustainable projects. 

Canada’s leadership position on the climate crisis may be subverted by its support for projects reliant on the failure of the Paris Agreement, indicating that the country’s aspiration of complying with the Paris-aligned world is doubtful. 

Evidently, there remains a divide between environmental motivation and monetary incentives- such that people tend to perceive the two as mutually exclusive. However, if a global, widespread effort is made towards shifting to a greener economy, then the two will inevitably go hand-in-hand. Without this shift, a limbo between wanting to mitigate the climate crisis and wanting to ensure financial stability will continue to prevail. Because of how vulnerable it is to global warming, it is certainly in Canada ’s best interest to divest from use of fossil fuels and instead invest in projects that will green the economy while ensuring profitability. 

Featured image by: kris krüg

The first active leak of methane from the sea floor in Antarctica has been discovered by scientists. Worryingly, the scientists also found that the microbes that normally consume the gas before it reaches the atmosphere had only congregated in small numbers after five years, allowing the methane to escape. What does this mean for the planet in its mission to mitigate the climate crisis?

The Antarctica Methane Release

The research, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, reports the discovery of the methane seep at a site called Cinder Cones in McMurdo Sound. The site is 10 metres deep with a 70 metre long patch of white microbial mats. This seep was first spotted by divers in 2011 and scientists returned to the site in 2016 to study it in detail, before beginning laboratory work.

The researchers are unsure of the reason for the emergence of this new seep, but believe that it is ‘probably not global heating’ as the Ross Sea where it was found has yet to warm significantly. They are most concerned, however, about the delay of the microbes in consuming the methane, which current climate models do not take into account. Andrew Thurber, from Oregon State University, who led the research, says, “The delay in methane consumption is the most important finding. It is not good news. It took more than five years for the microbes to begin to show up and even then there was still methane rapidly escaping from the sea floor.” 

You might also like: Antarctica Heatwave: When, Why and What it Means

However, Thurber says that while very little is known about the Antarctic methane cycle, the new seep provides a natural laboratory for further research.

The source of the methane, which was found to be dissolved in the water instead of bubbling, is probably decaying algae deposits buried under sediments and is likely to be thousands of years old. The slow growth of microbes at the site means that methane is certainly leaking into the atmosphere. Thurber believes that it may be ‘five to 10 years’ before a community of microbes becomes fully adapted and starts consuming methane. 

Antarctica is known as the ‘black hole’ of research in understanding the Earth’s methane cycle, as it is generally a difficult place to work, according to scientists. Vast amounts of methane are thought to be stored under the sea floor around Antarctica which is released from frozen underwater stores or permafrost regions. This process is one of the key tipping points of the climate crisis as methane is a greenhouse gas that is far more potent than carbon and could have catastrophic impacts on the planet and the environment.

The team says that this discovery may not be an anomaly, and they wonder if these features are more common than we think around Antarctica, but are rarely stumbled upon. 

A recent study found that the South Pole has warmed at a rate three times the global average over the past 30 years, prompting fears that methane could be released in larger quantities as the oceans in the region warms. 

The continent also experienced unprecedented heat last summer and in February, recorded a temperature of 20.75°C, Antarctica’s highest temperature in recorded history. This has exacerbated the rapid melting of the Thwaites Glacier, an unusually large and vast ice sheet in Antarctica that is nicknamed the “Doomsday Glacier” for the devastating consequences it could have on global sea level rise. 

While this methane discovery may be a natural phenomenon and not necessarily caused by human activity, the effects of it will surely be worse than if humanity mitigated its greenhouse gas emissions. As natural feedback loops are initiated, this has never been more important. 

Scientists have issued new warnings over the Thwaites Glacier, an unusually large and vast ice sheet in Antarctica, that is melting swiftly and whose collapse could lead to rapid sea level rise. Already, ice draining from the glacier into the Amundsen Sea accounts for about 4% of global sea level rise, prompting concerns over the cascading effects the collapse of this glacier would have on the rest of the world.

Termed the ‘Doomsday Glacier’, Thwaites provides important insight into Earth’s future. It is now the focal point of a major research project led by British and American scientists which aims to understand how the glacier is changing, and what these changes mean for rising sea levels. Teams of scientists are drilling into the Thwaites Glacier to determine whether it is about to collapse.

An Inherently Unstable Glacier

Thwaites’ ice shelf destabilises the whole glacier, and research has shown that there is very little ice shelf left in the western part of the glacier. Instead, much of the ice that is there is a slushy mix of icebergs and other bits of floating ice. 

If the whole of the floating ice shelf breaks into icebergs, what will be left is a cliff of ice whose shape makes it especially vulnerable to runaway collapse. The seafloor underneath the glacier slopes downward as it goes inland- called a “retrograde slope”- and the ice sitting on top of it gets thicker. If the Thwaites glacier retreats far enough inland and reaches a certain thickness, it will start to collapse under its own weight. Once this starts, ice cliff modelling suggests, there may not be anything to stop it. 

Thwaites Glacier is losing ice faster and faster, and the process seems to be accelerating; over the past three decades, the amount of ice flowing out of Thwaites and its neighbouring glaciers has nearly doubled.  

The glacier is more than 191 000 sq km and is particularly susceptible to the climate crisis. Rob Larter, marine geophysicist and UK principal investigator for the Thwaites Glacier Project at the British Antarctic Survey, said “it is the most vulnerable place in Antarctica,” with large portions deteriorating and breaking off.

David Vaughan, director of science at the British Antarctic Survey, stressed that if the Thwaites glacier continues to deteriorate at its current rate, it could collapse and be responsible for tens of centimetres of sea level rise by the end of the century. “That doesn’t sound like much, but it is,” Vaughan noted, “it is not about the sea coming up the beach slowly over 100 years – it is about one morning you wake up, and an area that has never been flooded in history is flooded.”

As Thwaites melts, it could propagate a 65 centimetre rise in sea levels, however if Thwaites fully deteriorates, the cascading effect across the Western half of Antarctica would lead to a 2- to 3-meter rise in sea levels, which would be ‘catastrophic’ for most coastal cities. 

Paul Cutler, programme director for Antarctic glaciology at the National Science Foundation in the US, explains how Thwaites glacier “is a keystone for the other glaciers around it in West Antarctica … If you remove it, other ice will potentially start draining into the ocean too.” 

Current models estimate a 61- to 110-centimetre sea level rise by the end of the century, assuming the world continues to emit the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

The Cascading Effects of Melting Ice

Antarctica holds around 90% of the ice on the planet- the ‘equivalent to a continent the size of Europe covered in a blanket of ice 2 kilometres thick’. As temperatures rise, the Earth does not heat up evenly everywhere: the polar regions warm much faster. Antarctica and Greenland are at the frontline of receiving much of global warming’s negative effects, more so than the rest of the world. Unfortunately, these high temperatures are being fuelled not just by a rise in greenhouse gases, but also by natural weather shifts in the tropics.

A recent study found that the South Pole, the most remote place on Earth, has warmed at three times the global rate since 1989, with temperatures rising 0.6 degrees per decade- a worrying figure that reveals the stark and rapid progression of global warming. 

You might also like: The South Pole is Warming Three Times Faster Than the Global Rate

Warming Oceans 

Currently, the Antarctic continent contributes about 1 millimetre per year to sea level rise, which is a third of the annual global increase. 

There is a lot yet to understand about the physical properties of ice sheets and how they deteriorate with time- researching the Thwaites glacier is therefore pivotal. Anders Levermann, a professor at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact, says, “it is very difficult to say how fast sea level is rising, but it is not very difficult to say how much ice can survive on a planet that is 1C or 2C or 3C warmer, and how much the ocean will expand.” 

Despite reports demonstrating a decrease in carbon dioxide emissions amidst COVID-19 due to worldwide lockdowns, the long-term projection remains unsettling as carbon dioxide can remain in the atmosphere for long periods of time, and its levels are still increasing.

Additionally, the Earth’s core temperature is continuing to rise: last month was the hottest June on record, and in July a heatwave swept the Russian Arctic near Siberia resulting in temperatures of 38 degrees Celsius, which triggered the escalation of the Arctic wildfires.  

Many of the observable effects of the climate crisis are irreversible, and continuous research is needed to understand what the future of rising sea levels holds and what it would mean for Earth’s inhabitants. Reversing these effects entirely is out of the question, scientists protest, but stopping them in their tracks by slowing the rate of global warming would help prevent further damage.

Tackling the Problem 

The challenge lies in tackling the rapid rate of rising sea levels. If infrastructure planners prepare for a 60 or 70 centimeter rise in sea level, then an unprecedented rate of, say, twice as much, would diminish their efforts- making such plans ineffective in accommodating for a potential higher, unpredicted sea level rise. In light of this, research that aims to develop a greater understanding of Thwaites will help experts better plan and prepare for the future of Earth’s climate. 

With higher sea levels comes coastal flooding, damaged infrastructure, heightened storms during typhoons, and destruction to agricultural land due to salty seawater invasion. Coastal cities have already begun preparing for the worst. San Francisco is building defences around its airport, which sits three metres above sea level, and London is considering increasing the height of the Thames barrier. 

According to a study published in the journal Environmental Research Communications, the economic cost of such infrastructure aimed at accommodating rising seas will be as much as 4% of global GDP by the end of the century. 

Thomas Schinko, author of a study published in Nature Climate Change and a researcher at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, says that if we don’t adapt we will experience ‘huge losses’, stressing that it would be more cost-effective to prepare for the worst than to deal with the aftermath of rising sea levels. 

Featured image by: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

A new study has found that the South Pole warmed at a rate three times the global average over the past three decades. Temperatures at the Amundsen-Scott research station in Antarctica rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius between 1989 and 2019; by comparison, global temperatures rose 0.5 to 0.6 degrees Celsius during the same period. This warming of the South Pole, one of the coldest and most isolated places on Earth, shows that it is starting to feel the impacts of the climate crisis.

Published in the journal Nature Climate Change, researchers at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand analysed 60 years of weather station data and used computer modeling to determine the cause of the accelerated warming. They determined that warming at the South Pole happened at a rate of 0.61 degrees Celsius per decade, and was caused by warm ocean temperatures in the western tropical Pacific Ocean and anthropogenic global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions. 

These warmer ocean temperatures had lowered atmospheric pressure over the Weddell Sea in the southern Atlantic over the decades, which increased the flow of warm air directly over the South Pole. 

Previously, the Antarctic plateau had been cooling while global temperatures were rising, but the researchers found that this is no longer the case. Kyle Clem, a polar scientist and lead author of the study, says, “The South Pole is now one of the fastest warming regions on the planet, warming at an incredible three times faster than the global average rate.”

While human-caused climate change also likely played a role in this warming, it is not clear to what extent and the researchers have found that the dominant driving factor is likely to be the natural swings in Antarctica’s climate. 

The researchers attributed the change to a phenomenon known as the Interdecadal Pacific Oscillation (IPO). The IPO cycle typically lasts for roughly 15-30 years and alternates between a ‘positive’ state- where the tropical Pacific is hotter and the northern Pacific is cooler than average- and a ‘negative’ state where the opposite occurs. The IPO flipped to a negative cycle at the beginning of the century, leading to a flow of warmer air right over the South Pole. 

You might also like: How The Climate Crisis is Affecting the Global Carbon Cycle

What is the General Climate in the South Pole?

While temperatures at the South Pole still generally range from -50 to -20 degrees Celsius, the study shows that even the coldest and most isolated parts of Antarctica are starting to feel the impacts of the climate crisis. The study illustrates how complex the Antarctic climate is and how it is influenced by climate cycles in completely different regions of the world. Climate change in the region is difficult to determine as different regions of the continent often experience different climate trends at the same time. 

For example, while the South Pole was cooling in previous decades, West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula was melting; now that the South Pole is heating up, warming on the peninsula has declined. Additionally, sea ice in the Southern Ocean was expanding for most of the last 35 years, but from 2014, this reversed and scientists aren’t entirely sure why, although they have postulated that these shifting patterns could be due to natural climate cycles, like the IPO or El Niño, and the influence of the climate crisis on oceanic and atmospheric currents around Antarctica. 

Unfortunately, these natural climate variabilities make it difficult to link human-caused climate change and global warming. Nevertheless, it is still vital to decrease greenhouse gas emissions as Antarctica’s seaside glaciers are rapidly melting from the bottom up as warm ocean water seeps beneath the ice, which could have disastrous impacts on rising sea levels globally. 

As climate change ricochets around the world, with Arctic warming and ice melt possibly bringing more extreme weather to mid-latitudes and northern sea ice melt perhaps generating a shift in equatorial wind patterns, new research shows that changes in tropical weather patterns may not just be coming from the top-down, but also from the bottom-up, from the Antarctic.

A study published in Nature Geoscience this March finds that melting sea ice in Antarctica is influencing weather patterns as far away as the equatorial Pacific, warming ocean surface temperatures, delivering more rain, and potentially creating El Niño-like effects.

Though there’s a growing body of research supporting an Arctic sea ice connection to tropical weather, this is one of the first studies to look at the impact of less sea ice at the South Pole on equatorial region weather. Scientists now estimate that diminished sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic will contribute roughly one-fifth of all the warming projected to occur in the tropics by the end of the century, less than 80 years away.

You might also like: ‘Green Snow’ is Spreading Across Antarctica: What Does it Mean?

antarctica ice melt
Sea ice and icebergs off East Antarctica in 2011 (Source: NASA Earth Observatory).

The biggest declines in sea ice so far have been documented in the Arctic, where extent over the past decade has fallen spectacularly below the 1981-2010 average. On March 5, 2020, Arctic sea ice hit its greatest extent for the year at 15 million square kilometers (5.7 million square miles), an improvement over recent winters, but “no reason to take what we are seeing as evidence for a recovery,” according to Mark Serreze, director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

In contrast, up until 2016 Antarctic sea ice was holding strong. Then things changed. In 2017 and 2018, sea ice extent around the southern continent plummeted, hitting record lows at the annual minimum. This year, Antarctica hit its minimum ice extent on February 21, at 2.69 million square kilometers (1.04 million miles) — above the three preceding years, but still well below average, particularly in the Amundsen-Ross region.

“All the climate models project that by the end of the century there will be a significant amount of Antarctic sea ice loss,” says Mark England, a polar climate scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego and lead author of the Nature study. Indeed, some estimates indicate that Antarctica will lose half of its surrounding sea ice by 2100. Because that ice is floating, it won’t add to sea level rise, but it could cause havoc with global weather.

Earlier this year, researchers found that accelerating sea ice melt in the Arctic could be linked to the intensification of Central Pacific trade winds, the emergence of El Niño events, and the weakening of the North Pacific-Aleutian Low Circulation — a semi-permanent low pressure system that drives post-tropical cyclones and generates strong storms.

“The story for how the Arctic might impact the tropics has been getting stronger over the past couple of years through climate modeling studies,” explains England. “But if we’re trying to understand the polar regions’ impacts on the tropics, just concentrating on the Arctic may only give you half the signal over the next 50 or 60 years.”

In the new study, England and his co-authors used computer simulations to determine how Antarctic sea ice loss will combine with Arctic sea ice loss to alter wind patterns in the Pacific Ocean, inhibiting the upward movement of deep, cold ocean water to the surface, particularly in the eastern equatorial Pacific.

Based on England’s modeling, it’s expected that ice loss at the poles will combine to warm the equatorial Pacific surface ocean by 0.5℃ (0.9℉) and increase rain by more than 0.3 millimeters (0.01 inches) of rain there per day, while rainfall will decrease 0.2 millimeters per day south of Hawaii. Warming in these equatorial surface waters is also what happens during an El Niño event, which can trigger heavy rains in North and South America, and bring intense drought to Australia and west Pacific nations.

Prior to this research, England says, “we were really in the dark about what Antarctic sea ice loss may do. It’s a completely different idea where you have the Southern Ocean rather than the mid-latitude continents right next to [the ice areas].” But as it turns out, the effects of ice loss at the poles were quite similar. “We found that the tropical impacts kind of reinforce each other and lead to this quite large signal.”

“This study adds compelling evidence for the substantial global impacts of losing the Earth’s [reflective] mirror — namely sea ice at both poles,” says Jennifer Francis, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center who previously published a study that drew connections between changes in the Arctic and mid-latitude extreme weather. “Not only will ice melt affect the high-latitudes… it’s becoming abundantly clear that ocean currents, winds, and precipitation patterns in the temperate and tropical regions, where billions of people live, will also be disrupted.”

Still, more research is needed, with the influence of both poles upon the temperate and equatorial zones remaining a controversial topic. Last month, for example, mathematicians at the University of Exeter said they determined that Arctic warming does not, in fact, lead to a “wavier” jet stream around the mid-latitudes, but that any link between the two regions is likely due to random fluctuations in the jet stream impacting the Arctic — and not the other way round as Francis and other researchers assert who remain skeptical of the Exeter conclusions.

In terms of Antarctica, England says more modelling should be undertaken. “We’ve kind of skimmed the surface on the mechanism, but there’s a lot more work to be done to understand exactly the role of different feedbacks in getting this tropical response.”

In case none of this Antarctic climate news leaves you feeling vulnerable, another newly released study regarding the South Pole and sea level rise just might. According to scientists, Antarctica’s Denman glacier has retreated three miles over the past 20 years into its deepest undersea valley, providing a potential pathway for the warming ocean to accelerate melt from below. If the glacier were to retreat across the entire undersea canyon — roughly 100 miles — it could lose 540 trillion tons of ice and raise global sea level by five feet.

Featured image by: Eli Duke

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Gloria Dickie, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

Algae blooms are causing ‘green snow’ along the coastlines of Antarctica and are likely to spread as temperatures rise, according to a study that has created the first large-scale map of the organisms and their movements. 

What is green snow?

The study, published in the Nature Communications journal, used European Space Agency satellite data gathered between 2017 and 2019 as well as on-the-ground observations over two summers in Antarctica’s Ryder Bay, Adelaide Island, the Fildes Peninsula and King George Island, which allowed scientists to map the microscopic algae as they spread across the snow of the Antarctic Peninsula, forming ‘green snow’. 

The data reported is a conservative estimate since it only included green algae. The satellite is only capable of picking up green, which means the data ignored the red and orange algae that accompany it. 

Scientists identified 1 679 separate blooms of green algae on the snow surface, covering an area of 1.9 sq km, equating to a carbon sink of around 479 tons per year. Patches of green snow algae can be found along the coastlines of Antarctica, usually in ‘warmer’ areas, where average temperatures are a little above zero degrees Celsius during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months of November to February.

Warming temperatures could create environments more favourable for the algae, which need slushy, wet snow to thrive.

Dr Andrew Gray, lead author of the paper, and a researcher at the University of Cambridge, says, “As Antarctica warms, we predict the overall mass of snow algae will increase, as the spread to higher ground will significantly outweigh the loss of small island patches of algae.”

You might also like: How ‘Carbon Smart’ Farming Could be the Key to Mitigating the Climate Crisis

green snow antarctica
A map showing the areas in Antarctica where the ‘green snow’ is present (Source: Andrew Gray, Monika Krolikowski, Peter Fretwell, Peter Convey, Lloyd S. Peck, Monika Mendelova, Alison G. Smith, Matthew P. Davey. Nature Communications, 2020; 11 (1)).

Dr Gray added that while an increase in snow melt could lead to more algae growing, the distribution of the organisms is heavily linked to bird populations, whose excrement acts as a fertiliser to encourage growth. He says, “As bird- particularly penguin- populations are affected by warming temperatures, the snow algae could lose sources of nutrients to grow.” Over 60% of blooms were found near penguin colonies and others were found near birds’ nesting sites. 

Dr Gray says that an increase in the blooms could also lead to further snow melt. “It’s very dark- a green snow algal bloom will reflect about 80% of the light hitting it, so it will increase the rate of snow melt in a localised area,” he says.

Researchers found that almost two-thirds of the bloom were on small, low-lying islands. The researchers say that as the region warms due to the climate crisis, these islands could lose their summer snow cover and algae- although in terms of mass, the majority of snow algae is found in areas where they can spread to higher ground when snow melts. 

The Antarctic Peninsula is the part of the region that has experienced the most rapid warming in the latter part of the last century, the researchers say.

The region experienced an unprecedented heatwave in the beginning of the year- on February 9, a research station recorded a temperature of 20.75°C, the continent’s first time to exceed 20°C in recorded history.

The algal blooms in Antarctica are equivalent to about the amount of carbon that’s being omitted by 875 000 average UK petrol car journeys. Matthew Davey, one of the researchers of the study says, “That seems a lot but in terms of the global carbon budget, it’s insignificant. It does take up carbon from the atmosphere but it won’t make any serious dent in the amount of carbon dioxide being put in the atmosphere at the moment.” 

Antarctica experienced unprecedented heat this summer, with a heatwave that began in late spring in the Antarctic Peninsula and circumnavigated the continent over the next four months. Since the late 19th century, the planet has warmed by roughly 0.8°C. Scientists predict that the Earth’s temperature may increase by 3-5°C by the end of the century. This poses a massive problem for the fastest-warming regions on Earth, one of which is the Antarctic Peninsula. What does it mean when the coldest place on Earth heats up?

While isolated from the rest of the world, Antarctica drives the global ocean conveyor belt, a constantly moving system of deep-ocean circulation which transfers oceanic heat around the planet; Antarctica demonstrates the patterns of change that we can expect to see in other parts of the world.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the Esperanza research base on the Antarctic Peninsula reported a temperature of 18.4°C on February 6, the hottest on record for the continent, which was eclipsed three days later, when a nearby research station recorded a temperature of 20.75°C, the continent’s first time to exceed 20°C in recorded history. 

You might also like: Intolerable Bouts of Heat and Humidity on the Rise- Study

What Caused the Heatwave in Antarctica?

The Casey Station recorded a heatwave from January 23 to 26; on January 24, the maximum temperature was 9.3°C, almost 7°C above the Station’s 30-year mean for the month.

The arrival of warm, moist air amid this weather brought rain to the Davis Research Station in the normally cold desert of the Vestfold Hill. These conditions spurred meltwater pools and surface streams on local glaciers. These, along with melting snowbanks, contributed to high-flowing rivers and flooding lakes.

Antarctica Melting Rate

Further, the amount of ice flowing from the Thwaites Glacier, one of the biggest culprits in rising sea levels, has nearly doubled over the last three decades. A 2018 study reveals that ice shelf collapse from 1992 to 2017 increased the Antarctic Peninsula ice loss rate from 7 to 33 billion tons a year. 

In January, researchers recorded what they consider to be the biggest widespread melting of the George VI ice shelf, which is right beside the Antarctic Peninsula. The exact reason for this is unknown, but scientists surmise that the warm temperature likely affects other Antarctic regions as well.

Satellite images from February 2019 to February 2020 revealed that a huge iceberg from the Pine Island Glacier broke off into smaller pieces. This unprecedented heatwave in Antarctica and the sea level rise driven by the melting of the glaciers will lead to disastrous consequences. 

NASA’s Earth Observatory also reports that Antarctica’s warm temperatures began on February 5 and lasted until February 13, the period when the hottest temperature was recorded on the Esperanza base.

The weakened state of the Southern Hemisphere westerlies due to Antarctic Oscillation is a big factor as it normally shields warm weather from being transported from Earth’s temperate regions to the Antarctic Peninsula. The polar cyclone is at its maximum intensity during the winter and it reaches its weakest during the summer, weakening the westerlies. Dry and warm foehn winds may have also contributed as they release heat into the air. 

The late Indian monsoon retreat, the most delayed it has been in 60 years, caused the water in the Indian Ocean to be warmer than usual as an effect of the ‘positive’ state of the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). This positive IOD may have lasted until January, also contributing to the warmer temperature in the Antarctic regions. 

High-temperature trends in the Antarctic Peninsula give a clearer depiction of the continent’s climate, which is essential in observing rising sea levels and global warming conditions. An increase in these trends will cause further melting of the glaciers which intensifies extreme events brought about by the climate crisis.

According to WMO Deputy Secretary-General Elena Manaenkova, every seemingly insignificant degree of global warming will affect food security, access to clean water, species extinction and economic productivity. In addition to this, Pacific Island nations, such as Kiribati and Samoa, and coastal communities will most likely be displaced.

A paper by the WWF says that a 4°C increase in global temperature would melt nearly all the glaciers on Earth. Ocean warming may have caused more than half of Antarctica’s total ice loss during the last few years, especially in the eastern Antarctic Peninsula.

“It is worth repeating once again that we are the first generation to fully understand climate change and the last generation to be able to do something about it,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

Since the 19th century, the global average sea level has increased by over 15cm. Concrete and realistic plans by global leaders paired with transformative climate action would address the current climate crisis. These events highlight how interconnected our climate systems are, from the surface to the stratosphere and from the monsoon tropics to the southernmost continent. An unprecedented heatwave in Antarctica is a sign of things to come for the rest of the planet and to avoid irreversible and devastating impacts, there is no better time to act than the present.

Featured image by: Daniel Enchev

Researchers at the University of Tasmania have found microplastics in Antarctic ice for what is believed to be the first time. 96 pieces of plastic less than 5mm wide were found in a piece of ice core that was drilled in 2009 and had been stored in Hobart, Tasmania.

14 different kinds of microplastics smaller than 5mm were found in the Antarctic ice core, and on average about 12 pieces of plastic were found per liter of water.

Microplastics have previously been discovered in Antarctica’s surface waters, sediment and in snow, but this discovery could mean that the region’s krill- which feed on algae from sea ice- may be more exposed to the plastic, placing them at risk. 

Anna Kelly, from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania and lead author of the study, says, “The remoteness of the Southern Ocean has not been enough to protect it from plastic pollution, which is now pervasive across the world’s oceans.”

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She added that the concentrations of microplastics found in the ice core in Antarctica were slightly lower than a previous study that found microplastics in Arctic sea ice. 

“The microplastic polymers in our ice core were larger than those in the Arctic, which may indicate local pollution sources because the plastic has less time to break down into smaller fibres than is transported long distances on ocean currents,” she says.

The researchers say that they identified fibres of varnish and plastics commonly used in the fishing industry.

The ice core that was drilled in 2009 was taken from ‘fast ice’, immobile ice that forms around the coast. When the core was analysed, the plastics were surrounded by algae that had grown in the ice.

The researchers in the 2009 expedition say that it is unclear whether the toxicity of plastics affects the guts of krill and those animals that feed on them, and have called for more studies to be conducted to understand the impacts of plastics on species relying on sea ice.

Kelly says, “Rather than sinking to the deep ocean, the entrapment of microplastics in sea ice in Antarctica allows them to persist for longer near the sea surface.”

Krill are the basis of the entire Antarctic food web, providing food for penguins, seabirds, seals, fish and whales. Blue whales and humpback whales migrate to the Antarctic from warmer waters every year to feed on krill. 

Kelly says, “Plastic contamination of West Antarctic sea ice may be even greater than in our ice core from the east, as the Antarctic peninsula hosts the bulk of the continent;s tourism, research stations and marine traffic.”

Featured image by: Andreas Kambanis

The climate crisis, combined with increased human activity in the Antarctic Peninsula, has led to a decrease in populations of Chinstrap penguins. As recently as 2014, chinstrap penguins were rated ‘Least Concern’, facing low risk of extinction, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, a new census has found that colonies have fallen by more than half. 

The Antarctic region has been severely impacted by global warming, having experienced a heatwave in February that produced a record high temperature of 20℃. Temperatures in the region have risen by an average of 3℃ overall in the past 50 years. Average air temperatures across the globe have risen by a little more than 1 since 1880, demonstrating that Antarctica will be the most impacted by the climate crisis.

Chinstrap Penguins: Facts

The Chinstrap penguin is one of five penguin species found in the Antarctic, the South Sandwich Islands, the South Orkneys, the South Shetland islands and the Scotia Sea. Nicknamed ‘ringed’, ‘bearded’ and ‘stonecracker’ penguins, it is estimated that there are up to 13 million penguins in the sub-Antarctic and the Antarctic Peninsula regions, with an estimated 7.5 million breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins. They often form large colonies on icebergs to live and breed and are considered near-shore feeders, meaning that they catch krill and small fish near the iceberg where they inhabit. 

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Recently, a team of scientists from Stony Brook University in the US discovered the shocking drop in the numbers of chinstrap penguins, with less than half of the breeding pairs left on Elephant Island, as compared to the results recorded in 1971. Noah Strycker, an ornithologist and penguin researcher at the university and a member of the penguin census team, remarked that the results show that ‘the marine ecology is broken, or has drastically changed since the 1970s’. 

Why are the numbers of chinstrap penguins falling?

There have been little conservation efforts for the penguins as they were not considered to be endangered until recently. Little attention has been given to them and some colonies have not been counted for three decades, while the last census conducted on the penguins on Elephant Island was almost 50 years ago, indicating a lack of data on these animals. 

Strycker concluded that the decline in the population of these penguins is a result of reduced breeding success and increased mortality, probably due to the decreased supply of krill, a major part of the penguins’ diets. 

In recent years, krill fishing has gained popularity. An analysis predicted that the global krill industry was expected to grow 12% a year up to 2021; krill populations have already declined by 80% since the 1970s due to overfishing and a boom in demand for krill-based health products which claim to help with a range of ailments from heart disease and high blood pressure to strokes and depression. 

Additionally, the ice that is home to the algae and plankton that krill feed on is retreating at a rapid pace. The record-breaking temperatures in the Antarctic this year will no doubt result in more rapid krill population declines, threatening the penguin populations further.

The rates of each animal species in the Antarctic adapting to the warming climate are different. Some, such as Gentoo Penguins, have the flexibility to migrate to new colonies and they can alter their breeding schedules and gradually change their diet as they don’t rely on ice surfaces as much as other penguin species. However, the future is bleak for the majority of other penguins, including Emperor and Chinstrap Penguins. 

Positively, the global community has the opportunity to reach a consensus on implementing measures to tackle the climate crisis; the UN is discussing a global ocean treaty aiming to conserve marine biodiversity by including areas outside of the national jurisdiction of coastal states by 2030; however the conference was supposed to take place in April and has been postponed to an as-yet-unknown date. Additionally, three sanctuary proposals are scheduled to be discussed in October at the Antarctic Ocean Commission. 

The sharp decline in the population of these penguins demands imminent climate action. Although the Gentoo Penguins appear to be the winner amid climate change, the penguins in the Antarctic are facing the threat of extinction. Sustained greenhouse gas emissions will further threaten the populations of these and many other animals in the region and it is therefore imperative that nations cooperate with one another to ensure that sustainable fishing takes place. 

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