At the height of the Cold War, the world came together to safeguard Antarctica for all humanity as a place for peace and science, but the waters surrounding it are still under threat from exploitation and climate change. Maintaining the pristine state of the deep waters of Antarctica – that drive global Ocean and nutrient circulation – is vital for marine life such as whales and penguins, but also for a viable future for the planet. In 2016, after years of negotiation, countries put aside their differences and agreed to establish the world’s largest marine protected area in one of the world’s most iconic places – the Ross Sea. Five years on from the ground-breaking decision in the Ross Sea, with Antarctica experiencing unprecedented heating events, governments must significantly increase the protection of the Southern Ocean.
The 2020 meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) once again failed to approve long-standing proposals to create new large marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean. The science is clear, the governance structure is in place. We now need to take action to protect at least three additional very large areas of the Antarctic Ocean. Protecting Antarctica’s Southern Ocean is like investing in a gold-standard health insurance plan for our planet, and at a fraction of the cost.
See Antarctica2020.org for more information.
- The international community declared Antarctica a place of peace and science at the height of the Cold War.
- This is one of the most pristine marine environments on the planet and its protection will provide a true legacy for future generations, however it is under threat from increasing fishing activity and climate change.
- Antarctica is disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change, with an increase of more than 5˚C in average water surface temperatures over the past 50 years.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere released in September 2019, starkly illustrated that Earth’s frozen regions are losing ice and snow rapidly and warming faster than the rest of the world. Antarctica’s Ice Sheet lost 155 Gt per year.
- In February 2020 Antarctica experienced its first ever recorded heatwave followed by the continent’s highest ever temperature of just over 20˚
- New research has shown that the South Pole has been rapidly warming over the last 30 years at over three times the global rate.
- In January 2020, scientists found warm water under the Thwaites (also known as the Doomsday) Glacier, which is roughly the size of Britain. It is at risk of accelerated melting and collapsing altogether, resulting in devastating sea-level rise globally.
- Reports show that Antarctica and Greenland are losing ice six times faster than expected and if they continue along this worst-case scenario, will cause an extra 17 cm of sea level by the end of the century, putting 400 million people at risk from annual coastal flooding by 2100.
- Antarctica’s ice-free areas could increase by up to a quarter by 2100 if greenhouse gases are not reduced.
- Meltwater and ice discharge from the Antarctic Ice Sheet will enter the Southern Ocean and will lead to more sea ice around the Antarctic continent. This will in turn cause the deep waters of the Southern Ocean to increase by more than 1°C as the increase in sea ice will prevent heat escaping to the atmosphere.
- The tiny but mighty krill that underpin the Southern Ocean’s food web are also under threat, with populations having declined by 80% since the 1970s due to a combination of global warming and overfishing. Ocean warming is also driving the redistribution of krill populations, causing them to move further south.
- Significant reductions in krill will have disastrous impacts on wildlife – the penguin population could drop by almost one-third by the end of the century due to changes in krill biomass.
- Krill also play a vital role in the carbon cycle, with a recent study revealing the importance of their continuous moulting on carbon draw down and storage, doubling the previous estimate of how much carbon these tiny crustaceans sequester. Given that the krill moulting cycle depends on temperature, this highlights the sensitivity of Ocean carbon cycling to rapid environmental change, especially given the fast rate at which Southern Ocean is warming.
- Antarctica is the world’s heritage – its functions and its wildlife need to be protected.
- Protecting Ocean life at its source is critical. Global Ocean circulation is largely driven by the deep water formation around Antarctica’s coast, driving heat transfer and transporting essential nutrients to the great Ocean currents that feed the world.
- Building on the momentum of the protection of the Ross Sea, it is important that leaders continue to focus on protecting life in the great Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica.
- At a time when climate change impacts are increasing, we need to ensure we protect the unique Ocean environment around Antarctica.
- Creating large marine reserves in relatively untouched areas in the Southern Ocean such as the Ross Sea creates important global climate reference areas, helping our understanding of how a large-scale fully functioning ecosystem works and is influenced by climate change and Ocean acidification.
- The rate of ice loss across in the Ocean’s polar regions is accelerating and is now in line with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst-case scenario. Warming of the atmosphere and rising sea temperatures is causing the ice melt, with the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melting at the fastest rate.
SOUTHERN OCEAN GOVERNANCE
- The Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) governs Southern Ocean waters as part of the Antarctic Treaty system. Its members include 25 countries and the EU and all decisions are made by consensus.
- CCAMLR is divided into nine marine protected area (MPA) planning domains. MPAs either exist or are proposed in 8 of the 9 domains. Domain 9 (Amundsen and Bellingshausen Seas, size 4.47 million km2) is the only region in which no MPA is in development.
- In 2011, all 25 CCAMLR members committed to establishing a representative network of marine protected areas (MPAs) in the Southern Ocean.
- The 2012 deadline is long gone, but to date only two MPAs have been designated: in the South Orkney Islands (94,000 km2) and in 2016, following five consecutive meetings and a change of position by Russia, CCAMLR unanimously agreed to establish the world’s largest MPA in the Ross Sea (2.06 million km2 including the Ross Sea Ice shelf).
- Members need to work hard to catch up on their earlier commitments by agreeing to further Southern Ocean protected areas, including in the East Antarctic, the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula. Currently Russia and China are blocking the three proposed MPAs.
- The protection of the Southern Ocean is a defining issue for our times, and it can help bring countries together. We have a once-in-a-generation chance to do things differently.
WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN?
- By creating a system of Southern Ocean marine reserves, we could protect life in the global Ocean on an order of magnitude greater than anything that has been achieved before.
- We need to build on the momentous victory of the commitment to protect the Ross Sea that sets an important precedent for future Ocean protection, to ensure that a network of MPAs are established in the region.
- The MPA Proposals are based on best available science and took years of development to reach their current state.
- We need to quickly ensure the protection of East Antarctica, the Weddell Sea and the Antarctic Peninsula so that more very large Southern Ocean protected areas are established that build on the model agreed in the Ross Sea and encourage the development of further proposals for conservation of this unique region.
- These MPAs would be a heritage for all humanity, a sanctuary for science to study a near pristine ecosystem and understand the impacts of climate change on polar regions.
- The 26 CCAMLR members committed to form a large network of MPAs in the Southern Ocean by 2012. 2021 will see CCAMLR’s 40th meeting and the 60th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty System. It is now time to act and protect:
1. THE WEDDELL SEA
- The Weddell Sea is ice-bound, wild and remote, making it also one of the most intact ecosystems in the world.
- Despite its remoteness, increased research over the past few decades have shown that it is an ecosystem teeming with life, including many seabird and mammal species such as emperor penguins, elephant seals, minke, humpback, blue and fin whales.
- Dozens of new species have been discovered on scientific expeditions and it is very likely that many more will be discovered in the future as well.
- The region is under threat from climate change and Ocean acidification, and it needs to be protected in order to ensure the resilience of the marine life in the area.
- In 2016, the EU put forward a proposal (developed by Germany) to CCAMLR for the protection of 1.8 million km2 of this precious ecosystem. Click here for more information on why a MPA is needed in this area.
- Since 2019 Norway has worked with Germany to split the original proposal into two, and have submitted a revised proposal in the area west of the prime meridian (size 2.16 million km2).
2. EAST ANTARCTICA
- A proposal was first put forward by Australia, France and the EU in 2011 to put in place a system of MPAs in the East Antarctic.
- Over the years, the proposal has been scaled back in size and ambition from an initial seven MPAs covering 1.9 million km2, to three areas covering just under 1 million km2.
- These three remaining areas – MacRobertson, Drygalski and D’Urville-Mertz – are important for krill, Patagonian toothfish, silverfish, fur seals, light-mantled albatross, Adélie and emperor penguins, and southern elephant seals and Weddell seals.
- This proposal awaits consensus approval by the Commission.
3. ANTARCTIC PENINSULA
- Argentina and Chile made a proposal for an Antarctic Peninsula MPA (also known as “Domain 1” to CCAMLR in October 2018, with support from data provided by the US and UK. The current size of the MPA proposal is 670,000 km2).
- The region has been disproportionately affected by climate change, receives the majority of tourists to Antarctica (51,000 in 2017/18 season), hosts a wide array of research stations and projects, and is home to the world’s largest Antarctic krill fishery.
- A marine reserve in this region would safeguard critical habitat for krill spawning in the southern regions, as well as establish large buffer zones in coastal areas to minimize fishing impacts on land-based predators.
KEY ANTARCTIC MARINE FACTS
- Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and least populated of the worlds’ continents.
- Whilst the Antarctic landmass is icy-covered and barren, the surrounding Ocean is biologically rich.
- Whales, seals and sea birds are important parts of the ecosystem.
- There are about 5 million penguins in Antarctica.
- Size of land continent 13.8 km2 (1.4 size of the US). Size of the CCAMLR convention areas is 35.7 million km2.
- 90% of the world’s ice and fresh water is in the Antarctic.
- Antarctica’s average thickness of ice is 1.6 km.
- Its thickest ice is at Dome A in East Antarctica – at 4.8 km deep it is about as deep as the Alps are high.
- If all of Antarctica’s ice were to melt, sea levels may rise 60-65 meters.
- Only 0.6% of Antarctica is free of ice.
- Antarctic science is crucial for understanding how the Earth operates as a global system.
- The continent contains unique ice core records that have unprecedented detail about the causes and results of climate change.
- Antarctica is a significant driver of global climate.
- 18 countries operate year-round scientific research stations. During the Antarctic summer as many as 10,000 scientists and support staff work there – but only about 1,000 overwinter.
- Each year over 50,000 tourists visit the icy continent, but that is only during its short Summer months and in some very specific areas.
THE ROSS SEA- the world’s largest marine reserve
- The Ross Sea in Antarctica is one of the least impacted large marine ecosystems on Earth and because of the value of this area for research and conservation, a number of countries, research institutions, civil organizations, and citizens had been calling for its protection.
- Since its discovery in 1841 the Ross Sea has been the focus of extensive scientific research, with some data sets going back over 150 years.
- Despite its remote location, over 100 scientists visit the Ross Sea annually to study everything from seafloor life to Ocean biogeochemistry.
- The Ross Sea marine protected area is now the world’s largest marine protected area, covering 1.55 million km2, of which 1.1 million km2 is fully protected.
- Because the Ross Sea will likely be the last polar Ocean to lose its sea ice, it will be a critical refuge for many endangered species, including predators such as killer whales and leopard seals – the tigers of the sea.
- It offers unprecedented opportunities for science, and as a reference site for understanding how a large Ocean ecosystem works and is influenced by climate change. We do not have any other place of such scale left in the world Ocean.
- In recognition of the value of the Ross Sea for research and for conservation, a number of countries, research institutions, civil organizations, and world citizens have asked for its protection.
- Although Ross Sea waters comprise just 2% of the Southern Ocean, they are home to an estimated:
- 38% of the world population of Adélie penguins
• 26% of the world population of emperor penguins
• 30% of the world population of Antarctic petrels
• 6% of the world population of Antarctic minke whales
• 50% of Ross Sea killer whales, a distinct species
• 45% of the South Pacific Weddell seal population.