A new study has found that Antarctica is at great risk from human activities and other forces, and that environmental management is vital to protect the continent from human interests.
The report showed that one of the longer-term concerns that could very well be the greatest threat to Antarctica is the potential for potential for oil, gas and mineral exploitation on the continent and in the surrounding ocean. On top of that, Mahlon “Chuck” Kennicutt II, professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University notes that Antarctica faces growing risk of change from global warming, loss of sea ice and landed ice, increased tourism, over-fishing in the region, pollution and invasive species creeping into the area.
Kennicutt believes that the Antarctic Treaty System that governs the continent has worked well since it was established in 1962 and that 50 countries currently adhere to the treaty, but unsurprisingly, the treaty is under pressure from global climate changes and the always increasing interest of companies looking to the regions natural resources, from fish to krill to oil to gas to minerals.
“Many people may not realize that Antarctica is a like a ‘canary in a coal mine’ when it comes to global warming, and Antarctica serves as a sort of thermostat for Earth,” he points out. “The polar regions are the most sensitive regions on Earth to global warming, responding rapidly, so what happens in Antarctica in response to this warming affects the entire Earth system in many ways that we barely understand. Antarctica contains over 90 percent of the fresh water in the world, locked up as solid water in its massive ice sheets. Research that develops fundamental knowledge and understanding of these complex systems conducted in and from Antarctica is critical to understanding many of the challenges facing Earth today.”
“The Antarctic Treaty has worked well for the past 50 years, but we need to rethink how best to protect the continent from a range of growing of threats,” Kennicutt adds.
“The treaty forbids oil or gas development, but it’s possible that could be challenged in the years to come. Until now, energy companies have shown little interest in exploring the southern reaches of our planet because of the harsh conditions, the distance to market and the lack of technologies make it a very expensive commercial proposition.
“In the 1960s, most believed that drilling on the North Slope of Alaska was not economical, and in less than 30 years, it became one of the world’s major sources of oil. Deep-water drilling today is practiced worldwide and subfloor completion technologies are rapidly advancing, so barriers in the past may soon be overcome increasing the threat to Antarctica in the not-so-distant future.”
Kennicutt, a US native, also raises the very real concern of what happens when Antarctic ice melts.
“A report in the news last week shows that sea-level rise on the east coast of the U.S. is occurring much faster than predicted,” he notes.
“As the planet warms and the massive ice sheets break apart and melt, sea levels could continue to rise dramatically, not only in the U.S. but around the world. The ice sheets of Antarctica are known as the ‘sleeping giants’ in the ongoing debates about climate change and sea level rise. Scientists have only rudimentary understanding of how and when these ‘giants’ will contribute to sea level in the future.”
“The bottom line is that we need to make sure that existing agreements and practices that address and respond to these threats are robust enough to last for the next 50 years, and that they truly provide the necessary protection of Antarctica that we all wish for and that we owe to future generations.”