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Saving Antarctica

Saving Antarctica

That saving Antarctica is of paramount importance to save the world environment today need hardly be underscored. Indeed, sea levels will rise and all coastal countries could be seriously threatened by flooding if nothing is done to stop the massive melting of sea ice in Antarctica, according to nine award-winning scientists who have spent decades studying the icy continent and the waters around it. They are proposing two scenarios, one bleak, one promising, for what could happen by 2070, in Wednesday's edition of the journal Nature, that most scientists consider to be of utmost credibility. True, the paper is also speculative rather than only positing forecasts. These scenarios are more like data-driven conversation starters, according to the authors, all of who have won the Tinker-Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica. They game out what could happen if the world does nothing, or if policymakers take significant action in the next 10 years to stop the destruction. And, although one may never get to see Antarctica, these scientists want all to know that what happens in this remote region has a significant impact across corners of the globe. There are adorable penguins living there, but that's not the only reason that Antarctica should be cared about. It is covered by ice sheets that are channelled into the oceans through a network of ice streams and glaciers. Recently, the continent has witnessed a reduction in the extent of floating ice shelves. The shelves have also thinned due to our warming planet. The Southern Ocean that surrounds the continent is vital to the health of all the rest. It soaks up more heat and carbon than any other ocean and, in doing so, it helps slow the speed with which the atmosphere is warming. The region also does the world a real service by returning nutrient-rich deep water to the surface and it exports these nutrients to the lower latitudes that rely on them to support the life in our seas. The hole in the ozone, which is centred over this region, is caused in part by the release of chlorofluorocarbons that come from air-conditioning, aerosol cans, solvents, refrigeration and other manufacturing processes. The hole allows in too much ultraviolet light, which contributes to the increasing temperatures. Increased ocean acidity, a problem seen worldwide due to the increased amount of carbon dioxide from pollution, also hurts the animals that live in the waters and can cause some reproductive issues with fish.

In the first scenario laid out in the new report, if no one does anything to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the planet continues to warm, the Southern Ocean and Antarctica could see a major melt. That's on top of the record rate at which the continent is already losing sea ice. Antarctica is believed to have lost an average of 71 billion to 53 billion metric tonnes of ice per year between 1992 and 2011. If the sea ice melts, that would mean a rise in sea levels around the globe. The water in the Southern Ocean could become corrosive to any animal with a shell. The warmer ocean would create more icebergs, which would have to be carefully watched to protect fishing, shipping and tourism. Fishing would get harder, since fish stocks would decline. There would be severe declines of penguins, other seabirds and seals. By 2070, if the world worked together and made pollution a priority, limiting greenhouse gases, the second scenario predicts that there is a chance Antarctica could look much like it does now. The ice sheets would still be thinning, but that could slow, as would the increases in ocean acidity. Some of the more sensitive species would still see population declines, but others would adapt. The continuing decline of sea ice would still be forcing seal and seabird populations to change the way they forage for food and these animals may still have some challenges with breeding but sea ice stabilisation could reduce the frequency with which extreme events happen and hurt these species. Technology developed to redesign Antarctica's bases in the wake of these changes could be used to improve building and waste management in other parts of the world. The interdisciplinary team of researchers behind the theoretical glimpse into two possible futures hopes that it will motivate policymakers to make melting sea ice a priority. While it is speculative, the scenarios they have chosen are not out of the bounds of reason. Fisheries that provide a lot of jobs and food for the masses will be impacted. Coastal regions will feel this. It has far-reaching consequences across the planet.

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