Penguins are cute, sure. But Antarctica is much more than that…
The legendary land of ice is perhaps the least enticing place on Earth from a journalistic perspective. Fantastic pictures, but little information, reach the public. Many dream of going. Few know what really happens there.
The media tend to show its more fabulous aspects, relegating the southern confines of the planet to its remote aura of mystery, far away from current affairs. Yet the extreme south is closer to us than we realize. It is the largest natural laboratory in the world, where technicians and scientists work side by side in an attempt to predict change, climate change but not only, on which the fate of all of us depends.
Antarctica is covered in ice for the 99.6% of its size, but it has experienced air temperature increases up to five times higher than the mean rate of global warming. The same has happened to the Southern Ocean, with an incredible gain of 1°C since 1995. A warmer ocean can melt ice sheets from underneath, accounting for 55 percent of all ice shelf mass loss. These are alarming figures that pose a threat to place untamed by man, conserving vital untold stories about earth and the struggle of life.
Route to South is committed to improve public communication on what is really going on in Antarctica, in order to draw people attention on the need to preserve both the pristine dimension and the unique value for human discoveries of the Antarctic continent. We are particularly focused on initiatives that contribute to achieve the following goals: Developing Climate and Science Research, Monitoring Ecosystems’ Health, Reducing the Impact of Over-fishing, Promoting Sustainable Tourism.
Developing Climate and Science Research
Antarctica is one of the best places on earth to understand both the climate change and climate history of our planet, enabling scientist to predict more accurately future developments and provide information to politicians and policy makers.
Furthermore, Antarctica is a special place for other several scientific research fields.
The study of the dynamics of Antarctica’s ice sheets and glaciers are monitored by international intensive field programmes. Geology is particularly important if we consider the richness of information that ice-covered Antarctic rocks contain. Some of them are composed of igneous and metamorphic structures exceeding 3 billions of years in age. They are not only important for the geological history of the Earth, but they are also a window to the geology of the solar system. Antarctica is indeed the best place for finding meteorites.
Astronomy is another important research area since Antarctica offers a unique vantage point to look at the sky for near-Earth, upper atmosphere, solar, astrophysical and astronomical observations.
Ecosystems and biodiversity are also very productive, with scientist striving to understand the evolution and diversity of life in Antarctica and how they produced unique Antarctic ecosystems.
Last but not least, medicine is also present with studies in the psychophysical characteristics and genome-wide gene expression changes in human adaptation to the extreme climate.
And the list could be even longer.
Monitoring Ecosystems’ Health
Antarctica is a place thriving with life. Seas surrounding the continent are extremely productive due to the abundance of phytoplankton, from microscopic algae to shrimplike krill.
The rapid increase of temperatures is affecting the life of plants and animals as well. The krill has been declining and new plants are covering the land freed by the melting of perennial snow and ice. Indigenous species have been adapting to the very special condition of this land, with ice covering the sea for most part of the year. Melting could be a huge problem for their survival, as the productivity may change and create great imbalances in the ecosystem, not just for the marine ecosystem. The same goes for the most characteristic animal living here: penguins. Their breeding success has declined in areas where sea ice has melted too early in the summer season or where the ground has become wet due to the increase in snowfall. Data have shown how fur seals are coming ashore in a greater number each year, damaging the vegetation. A really good example of how every ecosystems is interlinked with the other.
To better protect them, we need to continuously studying and monitoring their life. We need to better understand the causes, to deal with the effects and avoid every possible sudden shock for the environment and the animals who inhabit it.
Reducing the Impact of Over-fishing
Today we know that almost 90% of the world fish stocks are over exploited. Over-fishing is more the rule rather than the exception, the activity of an unstoppable industry working and emptying our oceans of important resources. An unsustainable rhythm for the environment.
Antarctica has been preserved during all these years thanks to harsh condition and unprofitable businesses. Yet the situation is changing with a very fast pace. Fishing is currently the only large-scale resource exploitation that is going on in Antarctica, affecting particular target species, such as krill, mackerel ice-fish or the Antarctic rock cod, and bring about a cyclical effect destabilizing the entire ecosystem. Many are the unnecessary victims, killed accidentally alongside the target species and trapped by the nets, the so called “by-catch”. Entire habits are destroyed by fishing gear.
This is what is happening in the Southern Ocean, a thriving area rich with marine life. What we are calling for is not a protection, but rather a necessary regulation to fishing. Data uncertainties and illegal unreported or even unregulated fishing are the main problems to solve if we want to have the situation under control. We need a sound management. To preserve our environment. To save the Antarctic.
Promoting Sustainable Tourism
Antarctica can be very interesting and rich in natural history. It has the ability to make us feel more connected to the heart and help us find the right place in our planet. There is a complex and constantly changing relationship between people and nature. Most of the time a very fulfilling one, nevertheless it have to be based on respect. The respect come from the awareness fragility of this ecosystems, especially if we think that the tourism is going to grow in number.
A sustainable tourism in Antarctica means, according to the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, that it should have no adverse impacts on the Antarctic environment, or on its scientific and aesthetic values. To achieve it, some policy options are recommended: development of a comprehensive tourism framework, recognition of the environmental and wilderness values by a sound regulation, research and monitoring as the base for reasonable decision making, control of access and the establishment of an observer scheme on board tourist vessels.
Above everything else, we should be able to create an informed tourist. The better way to respect something, it’s to know it.