When I was a kid I was obsessed with Antarctica. “Lulu where is your dream place to live?“ “Antarctica”, “Lulu what are you thinking of studying at university?” “Antarctica”, “Lulu can you please pass the salt?“ “Antarctica”, “Salt?” “Antarctica?”. But with the dramatic loss of ice over the past decade, this dream may never be realised. The future of the frozen continent is looking bleak as Antarctic scientists are learning more and more that these southern ice sheets are disturbingly fragile.
By 2050, it has been predicted that the surface melting of Antarctic ice sheets will be at twice the rate of what we are seeing today, which will lead to ice sheets’ oncoming collapse by 2100. This could affect the stability of the entire continent by the end of the century.
This isn’t the only problem that Antarctica is facing. Remember when everyone was freaking out about the hole in the ozone layer that was above Australia? Well it turns out that it was never anywhere near Australia, and it has always been above Antarctica. This hole is actually healing, a rare environmental success story for the human race. In 1987, the Montreal Protocol was mandated to tackle the growing hole in the ozone layer. Global restrictions were implemented that saw chlorinated compounds banned in coolants and aerosols. Whilst this may be great news for the reduction of dangerous UV rays entering the earth’s atmosphere, recent research suggests that this could be the beginning of the end for Antarctica.
The interesting discovery is that what was a man-made environmental issue – the ozone hole – really protected Antarctica from another, global warming. Professor John Turner of the British Antarctic Survey conducted a review in 2009 into what effects the reduction in the ozone hole will have on the future of Antarctica, and discovered:
– The consequential warming of the Southern Ocean as a result of the hole closing will cause changes in the Antarctic ecosystem.
– There will be rapid ice loss in parts of the Antarctic caused by increased temperatures.
– Carbon dioxide levels are going to increase to the fastest rate of production in the last 800,000 years.
– Penguin colonisation and krill levels will decrease due to sea ice loss.
– Antarctica will increase by 3°C over the next century, which will see the full effects of global warming across the continent.
– Ice loss in West Antarctica could contribute to a 1.4m sea level rise, which would have significant effects on coastal communities across the globe.
These results are game changing, as such a strong link between the ozone hole and global warming has not previously been published. Professor Turner sees the importance of this data and explains that “understanding the complexities surrounding these issues is a challenge for scientists – and communicating these in a meaningful way to society and to policymakers is essential.”
Beyond these facts we are learning a rather dark lesson. This data presents the new idea that when we try to fix one environmental disaster, we could cause another that is unforeseen. This may be due to the lag time relationship between the implementation of the latest technological innovations, and the long period of time it could take for the environment to respond. How are we meant to save the environment if we can’t catch up, are we always one step behind? This concept reinforces just how much the sciences of the world are interconnected and how each component is dependent on one another. How much longer can we play catch up before it is too late? Such an idea suggests that we may be fighting a reality where every success could just be replaced with another crisis.
There may be hope, however, according to a study published in Natural Geoscience journal, which showed that if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced, the ice melting in Antarctica could be under control by 2050. Once again we must turn to the policy makers, as it is solely within their power to make this change. Whilst we often feel small in the face of such large environmental issues, it is important to remember that even our small impacts can still make a difference. Keeping up to date and informed on environmental issues as well as being familiar with political environmental policies are both simple ways to ease your nature moral compass. We can only work towards fixing the environment with what we know, and until we can accurately predict the future this reality will not change. Accepting the unfortunate reality about the consequences of our actions is the first step towards developing a sustainable long-term solution.