It may be worst case scenario in the Antarctic. There, scientists are sounding the alarm after two recent studies revealed concerning trends in the environment’s overall health. The fragile marine ecosystem is facing a magnitude of anthropogenic threats and quite literally cracking under the pressure. Over the years, global warming has eroded substantial amounts of Antarctic ice. Now, researchers are concerned that massive glacier, Thwaites, may be the next casualty. Aptly nicknamed the “doomsday glacier”, the loss of so much ice at once could spell disaster. Unfortunately, Thwaites may be just the beginning. Scientists are also worried about the growing threat of invasive species to the region, after a new study highlighted an increase in travel to the area. Paired with insufficient biosecurity measures, the rise in ship traffic could also prove catastrophic. In either case, it is clear that drastic action needs to be taken or an Antarctic doomsday may be upon us.
Thwaites didn’t get its nickname for nothing. The gigantic glacier is approximately the size of Great Britain. It is made up of so much ice that if it were to fully collapse, it could raise sea levels by more than 65 cm. For comparison, there has been about a 20 cm rise in sea levels since 1900. That amount alone has devastated numerous coastal communities and led to considerable habitat loss. As it stands, the glacier already contributes to 4% of the global sea rise, losing around 50 billion tons of ice each year. In total, Thwaites has lost more than 1,000 billon tons of ice and the rate of this loss continues to increase. The glacier is hemorrhaging ice at twice the speed it was just 30 years ago.
The concern that Thwaites is in real danger has prompted the United States and United Kingdom to embark on a joint $50 million research mission. Reaching the desolate area is no easy feat, but scientists are hopeful that any information they gather from their trip could prove vital. Best case scenario, the data collected could lead to the development of new strategies to mitigate ice loss. At minimum though, the research should forewarn policy makers that real changes are needed. The scientists’ initial report indicates that Thwaites’ ice shelf has become unstable. The ice shelf essentially keeps the glacier in place. Without a solid ice shelf, Thwaites, too, will become structurally unsound. Researchers speculate that the weakening of the ice shelf is caused by global warming. Warmer ocean water melts the ice shelf from below leading to cracking at its surface.
It seems global warming is also responsible for the growing threat of invasive species in Antarctica. Historically, Antarctica has been protected from nonnative species by the harsh conditions of its environment, but milder weather could provide an opportunity for invasive organisms to thrive. This is especially concerning in light of new research on invasive species in Antarctica. A recent study examined the ship traffic patterns in the region, finding that ships from 1,500 ports all around the world routinely visit Antarctica. Biofouling on any of these vessels could allow for a nonnative species to establish roots. In the pristine Antarctic, this would be devasting. Invasive species can drastically change ecosystems, making it harder for native animals to survive.
The study attributes the majority of visits to the region with tourism. According to the data, tourism was responsible for 67% of the trips studied. Research missions meanwhile accounted for 21% of visits to the area. This is indicative of current trends in Antarctic travel. With the exception of a pandemic lull, tourism has steadily increased since the 1950s. This makes the need for strict biosecurity regulations that much more important. As more ships travel to Antarctica, the chance that one of them will bring an invasive species rises. In general, the touring companies in Antarctica have been receptive to any rules that help the environment. That said, policy makers will need to be vigilant in ensuring that sufficient biosecurity regulations are in place and that they are followed.
Time’s ticking on an Antarctic doomsday. We need to diffuse the situation before it is too late.