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Our Future Depends on Us: Antarctic climate change and the environment

Johanna Grabow and Alice Oates from the ISC’s Affiliated Body, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, remind us of the vulnerability of Antarctica in our era of climate change.

Antarctica, the southernmost continent on Earth, is home to some of the world’s most spectacular natural wonders. However, it is also one of the regions most vulnerable to climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, the impact on Antarctica and its surrounding oceans will be profound. To highlight this impact, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) worked with scientists across the globe to produce the Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment Decadal Synopsis (ACCE). The report provides a summary of a decade’s worth of research, and its eight chapters leave little room for doubt: the Antarctic continent is warming, and so is its surrounding Southern Ocean.

Climate Change and Antarctica

Climate change is having significant impacts on Antarctica’s ice sheets, climate and life, with far-reaching global consequences. The ACCE report provides concise, compiled synopses of current understanding, explicit recommendations for actions to address change, and recommendations for additional research. It is key that we understand what these changes mean for both the Antarctic and the rest of the world – and what we can do. The report was led by Monash University’s Professor Steven Chown, Director of Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future (SAEF) and SCAR’s Immediate Past President.

Communicating Vital Science

The ACCE report was developed for the 2022 Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Berlin, designed to communicate to the Treaty Parties how urgently we need action to mitigate the global impacts of climate change in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. However, the report’s message is one that needs to be shared as widely as possible. To that end, SCAR produced an animation summarizing the key messages from the report, with an engaging format designed to reach new audiences.

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The animation summarizes the impact of changing climate on different parts of the global system, in ways that are deeply connected to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean:

  • Atmosphere: Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and atmospheric temperatures are affecting atmospheric events, such as heat waves, precipitation, and wind patterns.
  • Oceans: The Southern Ocean is one of the earth’s greatest carbon sinks, and research is needed to understand how this impacts global oceans and climate.
  • Cryosphere: It’s vital to understand how the Antarctic cryosphere – which includes sea ice, permafrost, and ice shelves – is changing in response to atmospheric and ocean change.
  • Sea Level: The Antarctic Ice Sheet holds enough water to raise global mean sea level by 58 metres if totally melted. We need to understand how the ice sheet responds to climate change and how this might impact global sea levels.
  • Marine Life & Terrestrial Life: Changes to Antarctica’s climate influence species living there, many of which are uniquely adapted to the Antarctic environment. Species such as krill, a vital cornerstone of the Antarctic ecosystem, are already being affected by climate change.
Infographic summarizing key research in the ACCE report, produced by report co-author Laura Phillips (Monash University)

Our Future Depends on Us

Overall, the ACCE report is a sobering reminder of the impacts of climate change on our planet and the pressing need for action. As the report concludes, “the future of Antarctica is inextricably linked to the future of the global climate system, and the challenges of responding to climate change will require an unprecedented level of cooperation and collaboration.”

Climate change will have consequences on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, many of which we can already see today. However, it is not too late to take action. We need to meet and exceed the greenhouse gas emission targets of the Paris Climate Agreement – and do so with urgency.

Our future depends on us.

About SCAR

The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) is a thematic organization of the International Science Council, and was created in 1958. SCAR is charged with initiating, developing and coordinating high quality international scientific research in the Antarctic region (including the Southern Ocean), and on the role of the Antarctic region in the Earth system. SCAR provides objective and independent scientific advice to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings and other organizations such as the UNFCCC and IPCC on issues of science and conservation affecting the management of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean and on the role of the Antarctic region in the Earth system.

Report Citation: Chown, S.L., Leihy, R.I., Naish, T.R., Brooks, C.M., Convey, P., Henley, B.J., Mackintosh, A.N., Phillips, L.M., Kennicutt, M.C. II & Grant, S.M. (Eds.) (2022) Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment: A Decadal Synopsis and Recommendations for Action. Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Cambridge, United Kingdom.

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