Report: Antarctic is changing dramatically, with global consequences

Penguins navigate the sea ice in Antarctica. (Credit: John Weller) 

A new report from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) reveals how climate change is significantly impacting Antarctica’s ice sheets, climate and ecosystems, with far-reaching global consequences. 

The report, released May 24 at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Berlin, shows that Antarctic ice sheets are melting, the continent’s climate is changing, and the Southern Ocean is warming, becoming more acidic and losing oxygen. Locally, changing climates are already affecting the region’s iconic whales, seals, penguins, and the krill they rely on for food. Emperor penguins may be all but gone by the end of the century unless urgent action is taken, the report concludes.

But while seemingly isolated from the rest of the world, Antarctica’s changes also have impacts on all other continents. 

“What happens in Antarctica, does not stay in Antarctica,” said Cassandra Brooks, assistant professor of environmental studies and contributor to the report, specifically on marine elements of the region. 

Melting ice sheets mean that global average sea level rise will put nearly a billion people at risk from coastal flooding over the next several decades, a number that could increase by the end of the century. The Antarctic has also played a profound role in regulating the world’s climate, in part by absorbing heat and carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human activity. 

The report also states that: “Global impacts influenced by Antarctic change include extreme climate and weather events, droughts, wildfires and floods, and ocean acidification.”

For example, current levels of global warming have already committed the planet to about 16 inches (40 cm) of global sea level rise, which turns what was considered a one in 100-year coastal flood event into an annual one. 

“Antarctica’s changes have profound consequences for all of us,” said Monash University Professor Steven Chown, who led the report and is SCAR’s immediate past president. Chown is also Director of Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future (SAEF), of which Brooks is a Partner Investigator, through CU Boulder’s status as a Participating Organization. 

The report makes clear that adhering to, and preferably exceeding, the Paris Climate Agreement greenhouse gas emissions reductions targets will substantially lessen changes to the Antarctic and their implications for society.

Kelsey Simpkins, University of Colorado Boulder, 13 June 2022. Press release.

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