Images from Antarctica

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Why remote Antarctica is so important in a warming world

Chris Fogwill, Keele University; Chris Turney, UNSW, and Zoe Robinson, Keele University

Ever since the ancient Greeks speculated a continent must exist in the south polar regions to balance those in the north, Antarctica has been popularly described as remote and extreme. Over the past two centuries, these factors have combined to create, in the human psyche, an almost mythical land – an idea reinforced by tales of heroism and adventure from the Edwardian golden age of “heroic exploration” and pioneers such as Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen and Ernest Shackleton.

Recent research, however, is casting new light on the importance of the southernmost continent, overturning centuries of misunderstanding and highlighting the role of Antarctica in how our planet works and the role it may play in a future, warmer world.

Heroic exploration, 1913.

What was once thought to be a largely unchanging mass of snow and ice is anything but. Antarctica holds a staggering amount of water. The three ice sheets that cover the continent contain around 70% of our planet’s fresh water, all of which we now know to be vulnerable to warming air and oceans. If all the ice sheets were to melt, Antarctica would raise global sea levels by at least 56m.

Where, when, and how quickly they might melt is a major focus of research. No one is suggesting all the ice sheets will melt over the next century but, given their size, even small losses could have global repercussions. Possible scenarios are deeply concerning: in addition to rising sea levels, meltwater would slow down the world’s ocean circulation, while shifting wind belts may affect the climate in the southern hemisphere.

In 2014, NASA reported that several major Antarctic ice streams, which hold enough water to trigger the equivalent of a one-and-a-half metre sea level rise, are now irreversibly in retreat. With more than 150m people exposed to the threat of sea level rise and sea levels now rising at a faster rate globally than any time in the past 3,000 years, these are sobering statistics for island nations and coastal cities worldwide.

An immediate and acute threat

Recent storm surges following hurricanes have demonstrated that rising sea levels are a future threat for densely populated regions such as Florida and New York. Meanwhile the threat for low-lying islands in areas such as the Pacific is immediate and acute.

Much of the continent’s ice is slowly sliding towards the sea.
R Bindschadler / wiki

Multiple factors mean that the vulnerability to global sea level rise is geographically variable and unequal, while there are also regional differences in the extremity of sea level rise itself. At present, the consensus of the IPPC 2013 report suggests a rise of between 40 and 80cm over the next century, with Antarctica only contributing around 5cm of this. Recent projections, however, suggest that Antarctic contributions may be up to ten times higher.

Studies also suggest that in a world 1.5-2°C warmer than today we will be locked into millennia of irreversible sea level rise, due to the slow response time of the Antarctic ice sheets to atmospheric and ocean warming.

We may already be living in such a world. Recent evidence shows global temperatures are close to 1.5°C warmer than pre-industrial times and, after the COP23 meeting in Bonn in November, it is apparent that keeping temperature rise within 2°C is unlikely.

So we now need to reconsider future sea level projections given the potential global impact from Antarctica. Given that 93% of the heat from anthropogenic global warming has gone into the ocean, and these warming ocean waters are now meeting the floating margins of the Antarctic ice sheet, the potential for rapid ice sheet melt in a 2°C world is high.

In polar regions, surface temperatures are projected to rise twice as fast as the global average, due to a phenomenon known as polar amplification. However, there is still hope to avoid this sword of Damocles, as studies suggest that a major reduction in greenhouse gases over the next decade would mean that irreversible sea level rise could be avoided. It is therefore crucial to reduce CO₂ levels now for the benefit of future generations, or adapt to a world in which more of our shorelines are significantly redrawn.

This is both a scientific and societal issue. We have choices: technological innovations are providing new ways to reduce CO₂ emissions, and offer the reality of a low-carbon future. This may help minimise sea level rise from Antarctica and make mitigation a viable possibility.

The ConversationGiven what rising sea levels could mean for human societies across the world, we must maintain our longstanding view of Antarctica as the most remote and isolated continent.

Chris Fogwill, Professor of Glaciology and Palaeoclimatology, Keele University; Chris Turney, Professor of Earth Sciences and Climate Change, UNSW, and Zoe Robinson, Reader in Physical Geography and Sustainability/Director of Education for Sustainability, Keele University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Polar invasion: how plants and animals would colonise an ice-free Antarctica

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Tom Hart, Author provided

Peter Convey, British Antarctic Survey and Tom Hart, University of Oxford

Antarctica’s ice sheets could totally collapse if the world’s fossil fuels are burnt off, according to a recent climate change simulation. While we are unlikely to see such a dramatic event any time soon, we are already observing big changes and it’s worth considering what the worst case scenario might look like for the continent’s ecosystems. How long before Antarctica turns into grassy tundra?

For now, life thrives mostly at the very edge of the continent – it’s driven by the plankton-rich Southern Ocean and clustered around seasonally ice-free areas of coastal land. The interior might be sparsely inhabited, but the continent is not as barren as many think. There are around 110 native species of moss and two flowering plants, the Antarctic hairgrass and pearlwort. These plants have flourished along the relatively mild Antarctic Peninsula in recent decades. However they can’t go much further – they already occur at almost the most southern suitable ice-free ground.

With ice-caps and glaciers receding already in the Peninsula region, native land plants and animals are benefiting from more easily available liquid water. Already we are starting to see increased populations, greater areas occupied and faster growth rates, consequences only expected to increase – everything is currently limited by the extreme physical environment.

The world’s most southerly flower, the Antarctic hairgrass (Deschampsia Antarctica)
British Antarctic Survey, Author provided

It may eventually prove too warm for some native species, but the bigger issue in upcoming decades and centuries will be whether new and currently “non-native” species will arrive that are stronger competitors than the native organisms.

Antarctic invasions

Native polar species are inherently weak competitors, as they have evolved in an environment where surviving the cold, dry conditions is the overriding selective pressure rather than competition from other biological sources. If humans (or other wildlife expanding their range southwards) bring new competitors and diseases to Antarctica, that may pose a very grave risk to the existing biodiversity. Some native species would likely be pushed into the remaining more extreme regions where they can avoid competition and continue to rely on their inherent stress tolerance abilities.

Tom Hart with two million chinstrap penguins. Isolation has made Antarctic species vulnerable to introduced competition.
Richard White, Author provided

We usually split the process of natural colonisation – which applies even today in Antarctica – and that of movement of “alien” species by human agency. The best available data for the Antarctic region come from some sub-Antarctic islands, where it appears humans have been responsible for many more successful colonisations than nature. In fact, over the recent centuries of human contact with the region we have introduced 200-300 species compared to just two or three known natural colonisations.

Penguins, seals and flying seabirds move between islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, so there is potential for some natural colonisation. Vagrant birds are regularly observed across the sub-Antarctic and even along the Peninsula, some of which have colonised successfully (such as the starlings, redpolls and mallard ducks on Macquarie Island).

Migrants such as skuas and gulls, which spend time on land at both ends of their migration, could be important natural vectors of transfer for invertebrates, plant seeds and spores, and microbes into an ice-free Antarctica. Importantly, bird colonies also fertilise surrounding rock and soil with faeces, eggshells and carcasses. Plant and animal life flourishes near seabird colonies, encouraged by this enrichment.

What’s hitching a ride on this skua?
Tom Hart, Author provided

However it can be tough to predict what Antarctic melt would mean for individual species, never mind entire ecosystems. Take penguins, for instance – they have already survived previous inter-glacial retreats, but at reduced population sizes. This time round it is likely that Adélie and emperor penguins who are more dependent upon sea ice would decline, while less ice-dependent species such as gentoos and chinstraps might benefit. Indeed, there is already some evidence that emperors are struggling (although also that they may be adapting and learning to emigrate).

However the fact fish-eating gentoo penguins are increasing on the Peninsula while Adélies and chinstraps (both krill eaters) aren’t doing so well suggests prey availability can be more to blame than ice cover. Figuring out the impact of large-scale environmental change at ecosystem or food-web level is hard – it’s a complex process that will no doubt throw up some unexpected results.

This flightless midge comes from South Georgia but has been introduced further south.
British Antarctic Survey, Author provided

The sub-Antarctic islands are full of examples of such unexpected impacts. Pigs, dogs, cats, sheep, reindeer and rabbits have all been intentionally introduced in the past, with often devastating effects. Rats and mice were introduced to South Georgia and other islands accidentally by sealers and whalers, for instance, and have decimated seabird populations. A recent eradication campaign appears to have been successful and pipits, ducks and small seabirds are showing some immediate signs of recovery.

The removal of non-native cats from Macquarie and Marion Islands has similarly helped native burrowing seabirds, although responses in such ecosystems can be far more complex and unpredictable – the removal of cats from Macquarie also led to increase in the introduced rabbit population, and considerably increased damage to sensitive native vegetation.

Antarctic biodiversity is far more complex than widely assumed, with up to 15 distinct biogeographic regions that have been evolutionarily isolated for many millions of years. Humans present the greatest threat, not only of introducing new species, but also of moving “native” species between regions within Antarctica. This could be even more damaging, as these native species would already be pre-adapted to polar life.

Visitors to Antarctica are subject to increasingly strict biosecurity measures but accidental introductions continue to occur, often through food shipments for scientists. Changes in sea and land ice affect access to new areas, so we can only expect plant and invertebrate invasions to increase unless biosecurity becomes more effective.

The ConversationWhile cost issues may be raised, it is worth remembering that prevention will always be better – and cheaper – than subsequent control and eradication, even if such action is possible.

Peter Convey, Terrestrial Ecologist, British Antarctic Survey and Tom Hart, Penguinologist, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What if Antarctica’s dormant, ice-covered volcanoes wake up?

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Harvepino / shutterstock

John Smellie, University of Leicester

Antarctica is a vast icy wasteland covered by the world’s largest ice sheet. This ice sheet contains about 90% of fresh water on the planet. It acts as a massive heat sink and its meltwater drives the world’s oceanic circulation. Its existence is therefore a fundamental part of Earth’s climate.

Less well known is that Antarctica is also host to several active volcanoes, part of a huge “volcanic province” which extends for thousands of kilometres along the western edge of the continent. Although the volcanic province has been known and studied for decades, about 100 “new” volcanoes were recently discovered beneath the ice by scientists who used satellite data and ice-penetrating radar to search for hidden peaks.

Some of the volcanoes known about before the latest discovery., Author provided

These sub-ice volcanoes may be dormant. But what would happen if Antarctica’s volcanoes awoke?

We can get some idea by looking to the past. One of Antarctica’s volcanoes, Mount Takahe, is found close to the remote centre of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. In a new study, scientists implicate Takahe in a series of eruptions rich in ozone-consuming halogens that occurred about 18,000 years ago. These eruptions, they claim, triggered an ancient ozone hole, warmed the southern hemisphere which caused glaciers to melt, and helped bring the last ice age to a close.

Mt Takahe grew over hundreds of thousands of years and its 8km-wide caldera now towers above the ice sheet.
NASA / Jim Yungel, CC BY-SA

This sort of environmental impact is unusual. For it to happen again would require a series of eruptions, similarly enriched in halogens, from one or more volcanoes that are currently exposed above the ice. Such a scenario is unlikely although, as the Takahe study shows, not impossible. More likely is that one or more of the many subglacial volcanoes, some of which are known to be active, will erupt at some unknown time in the future.

Eruptions below the ice

Because of the enormous thickness of overlying ice, it is unlikely that volcanic gases would make it into the atmosphere. So an eruption wouldn’t have an impact like that postulated for Takahe. However, the volcanoes would melt huge caverns in the base of the ice and create enormous quantities of meltwater. Because the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is wet rather than frozen to its bed – imagine an ice cube on a kitchen work top – the meltwater would act as a lubricant and could cause the overlying ice to slip and move more rapidly. These volcanoes can also stabilise the ice, however, as they give it something to grip onto – imagine that same ice cube snagging onto a lump-shaped object.

In any case, the volume of water that would be generated by even a large volcano is a pinprick compared with the volume of overlying ice. So a single eruption won’t have much effect on the ice flow. What would make a big difference, is if several volcanoes erupt close to or beneath any of West Antarctica’s prominent “ice streams”.

A velocity map of Antarctic ice streams as they move toward the ocean.

Ice streams are rivers of ice that flow much faster than their surroundings. They are the zones along which most of the ice in Antarctica is delivered to the ocean, and therefore fluctuations in their speed can affect the sea level. If the additional “lubricant” provided by multiple volcanic eruptions was channelled beneath ice streams, the subsequent rapid flow may dump unusual amounts of West Antarctica’s thick interior ice into the ocean, causing sea levels to rise.

Under-ice volcanoes are probably what triggered rapid flow of ancient ice streams into the vast Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica’s largest ice shelf. Something similar might have occurred about 2,000 years ago with a small volcano in the Hudson Mountains that lie underneath the West Antarctica Ice Sheet – if it erupted again today it could cause the nearby Pine Island Glacier to speed up.

The volcano–ice melt feedback loop

Most dramatically of all, a large series of eruptions could destabilise many more subglacial volcanoes. As volcanoes cool and crystallise, their magma chambers become pressurised and all that prevents the volcanic gases from escaping violently in an eruption is the weight of overlying rock or, in this case, several kilometres of ice. As that ice becomes much thinner, the pressure reduction may trigger eruptions. More eruptions and ice melting would mean even more meltwater being channelled under the ice streams.

Mt Erebus is one of Antarctica’s most active volcanoes. The rocks in the foreground are the remnants of several younger subglacial volcanoes., Author provided

Potentially a runaway effect may take place, with the thinning ice triggering more and more eruptions. Something similar occurred in Iceland, which saw an increase in volcanic eruptions when glaciers began to recede at the end of the last ice age.

So it seems the greatest threat from Antarctica’s many volcanoes will be if several erupt within a few decades of each other. If those volcanoes have already grown above the ice and their gases were rich in halogens then enhanced warming and rapid deglaciation may result. But eruptions probably need to take place repeatedly over many tens to hundreds of years to have a climatic impact.

The ConversationMore likely is the generation of large quantities of meltwater during subglacial eruptions that might lubricate West Antarctica’s ice streams. The eruption of even a single volcano situated strategically close to any of Antarctica’s ice streams can cause significant amounts of ice to be swept into the sea. However, the resulting thinning of the inland ice is also likely to trigger further subglacial eruptions generating meltwater over a wider area and potentially causing a runaway effect on ice flow.

John Smellie, Professor of Volcanology, University of Leicester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Climate scientists explore hidden ocean beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf

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The team used hot-water drilling gear to melt a hole through Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf to explore the ocean below.
Christina Hulbe, CC BY-ND

Craig Stevens and Christina Hulbe

Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf is the world’s largest floating slab of ice: it’s about the size of Spain, and nearly a kilometre thick.

The ocean beneath, roughly the volume of the North Sea, is one of the most important but least understood parts of the climate system.

We are part of the multi-disciplinary Aotearoa New Zealand Ross Ice Shelf programme team, and have melted a hole through hundreds of metres of ice to explore this ocean and the ice shelf’s vulnerability to climate change. Our measurements show that this hidden ocean is warming and freshening – but in ways we weren’t expecting.

Instruments travelling 360m down a bore hole, from the snow-covered surface of the Ross Ice Shelf through to the ocean below the ice. After splash-down at about 60m, they move through the bubble-rich upper ice and down into the dark bubble-free lower reaches of the ice – passing embedded sediment that left the coast line centuries ago.

Read more:
Antarctic glacier’s unstable past reveals danger of future melting

A hidden conveyor belt

All major ice shelves are found around the coast of Antarctica. These massive pieces of ice hold back the land-locked ice sheets that, if freed to melt into the ocean, would raise sea levels and change the face of our world.

An ice shelf is a massive lid of ice that forms when glaciers flow off the land and merge as they float out over the coastal ocean. Shelves lose ice by either breaking off icebergs or by melting from below. We can see big icebergs from satellites – it is the melting that is hidden.

Because the water flowing underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is cold (minus 1.9C), it is called a “cold cavity”. If it warms, the future of the shelf and the ice upstream could change dramatically. Yet this hidden ocean is excluded from all present models of future climate.

This satellite map shows the camp site on the Ross Ice Shelf, Antarctica.
Ross Ice Shelf Programme, CC BY-ND

There has only been one set of measurements of this ocean, made by an international team in the late 1970s. The team made repeated attempts, using several types of drills, over the course of five years. With this experience and newer, cleaner, technology, we were able to complete our work in a single season.

Our basic understanding is that seawater circulates through the cavity by flowing in at the sea bed as relatively warm, salty water. It eventually finds its way to the shore – except of course this is a shoreline under as much as 800 metres of ice. There it starts melting the shelf from beneath and flows across the shelf underside back towards the open ocean.

Peering through a hole in the ice

The New Zealand team – including hot water drillers, glaciologists, biologists, seismologists, oceanographers – worked from November through to January, supported by tracked vehicles and, when ever the notorious local weather permitted, Twin Otter aircraft.

As with all polar oceanography, getting to the ocean is often the most difficult part. In this case, we faced the complex task of melting a bore hole, only 25 centimetres in diameter, through hundreds of metres of ice.

A team of ice drillers from Victoria University of Wellington used hot water and a drilling system developed at Victoria to melt a hole through hundreds of metres of ice.
Craig Stevens, CC BY-ND

But once the instruments are lowered more than 300m down the bore hole, it becomes the easiest oceanography in the world. You don’t get seasick and there is little bio-fouling to corrupt measurements. There is, however, plenty of ice that can freeze up your instruments or freeze the hole shut.

A moving world

Our camp in the middle of the ice shelf served as a base for this science, but everything was moving. The ocean is slowly circulating, perhaps renewing every few years. The ice is moving too, at around 1.6 metres each day where we were camped. The whole plate of ice is shifting under its own weight, stretching inexorably toward the ocean fringe of the shelf where it breaks off as sometimes massive icebergs. The floating plate is also bobbing up and down with the daily tides.

The team at work, preparing a mooring.
Christina Hulbe, CC BY-ND

Things also move vertically through the shelf. As the layer stretches toward the front, it thins. But the shelf can also thicken as new snow piles up on top, or as ocean water freezes onto the bottom. Or it might thin where wind scours away surface snow or relatively warm ocean water melts it from below.

When you add it all up, every particle in the shelf is moving. Indeed, our camp was not so far (about 160km) from where Robert Falcon Scott and his two team members were entombed more than a century ago during their return from the South Pole. Their bodies are now making their way down through the ice and out to the coast.

What the future might hold

If the ocean beneath the ice warms, what does this mean for the Ross Ice Shelf, the massive ice sheet that it holds back, and future sea level? We took detailed temperature and salinity data to understand how the ocean circulates within the cavity. We can use this data to test and improve computer simulations and to assess if the underside of the ice is melting or actually refreezing and growing.

Our new data indicate an ocean warming compared to the measurements taken during the 1970s, especially deeper down. As well as this, the ocean has become less salty. Both are in keeping with what we know about the open oceans around Antarctica.

We also discovered that the underside of the ice was rather more complex than we thought. It was covered in ice crystals – something we see in sea ice near ice shelves. But there was not a massive layer of crystals as seen in the smaller, but very thick, Amery Ice Shelf.

Instead the underside of the ice held clear signatures of sediment, likely incorporated into the ice as the glaciers forming the shelf separated from the coast centuries earlier. The ice crystals must be temporary.

None of this is included in present models of the climate system. Neither the effect of the warm, saline water draining into the cavity, nor the very cold surface waters flowing out, the ice crystals affecting heat transfer to the ice, or the ocean mixing at the ice fronts.

The ConversationIt is not clear if these hidden waters play a significant role in how the world’s oceans work, but it is certain that they affect the ice shelf above. The longevity of ice shelves and their buttressing of Antarctica’s massive ice sheets is of paramount concern.

Craig Stevens, Associate Professor in Ocean Physics and Christina Hulbe, Professor and Dean of the School of Surveying (glaciology specialisation)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As China flexes its muscles in Antarctica, science is the best diplomatic tool on the frozen continent

Adrian McCallum, University of the Sunshine Coast

Science has always drawn people and nations to Antarctica. But territorial claims and political tensions are also part of the history of that continent.

China is investing heavily in infrastructure and capability in Antarctica with research stations, airfields, field camps and plans for more. Science must continue to play a pivotal role in easing territorial tensions, as interest in Antarctica increases.

Read more: How China came in from the cold to help set up Antarctica’s vast new marine park

A brutal scientific history

Some argue that Captain Robert Scott and his team perished on their infamous return journey from the South Pole because of their dogged determination to haul 15kg of geological specimens.

Science has always nestled alongside the dominant motivation of territorial claims. But in Antarctica, it has evolved as a tool of diplomacy between nations, as a means to suppress tensions about national claims to the land.

This tension is not new. It was during his 1929–31 expedition that Sir Douglas Mawson claimed what is now the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT) as British sovereign territory, with sovereignty eventually being transferred to Australia in 1936.

Australia’s National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE), formalised in 1947, were not established for scientific reasons. Rather, they were meant to support our territorial claims and enable investigation of valuable mineral and marine resources located within the AAT.

A recent event in Hobart held by the Australian Academy of Science, examining the future of antarctic science was underscored by such themes.

A time of increased tensions

In their 2016 book, The Scramble for the Poles, academics Klaus Dodds and Mark Nuttall suggest that the planting of a Russian flag beneath the North Pole in 2007 precipitated a new scramble for resources in the polar regions.

In their view, there is an ongoing and under-discussed unease among Antarctic players when it comes to territory. This is felt particularly keenly by countries that have publicly reserved their right to make a future Antarctic claim (such as the United States and Russia), and those that have made no such claim, nor reserved such a right (such as China).

Australia is one of the original seven Antarctic claimants; we claim 42% of the continent. Our actions in Antarctica are pivotal as we grapple with increasing interest in the continent from assertive states such as China.

In a Special Report to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in 2017, Anne-Marie Brady of the University of Canterbury outlined three stations, three airfields and two field camps that China has in the AAT. She also noted China’s intention to build a fourth station on King George Island, with plans for a fifth station for the Ross Sea region.

Only weeks ago, Brady released a book, China as a Polar Great Power that further examines the game changing nature of China’s growing strength at the poles.

This power has grown, she argues, thanks to the country “investing more in capacity than any other nation”. This includes investment in BeiDou, China’s own global GPS network, which will enhance capability for the Chinese military.

What is Australia doing about this?

Australia is emerging from a long period of under-investment in Antarctica to slowly address this geopolitical situation.

In 2012, the US released an examination of its need to renew its infrastructure and logistical capability in Antarctica. In 2016, the Australian Antarctic Division released its own Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan.

These documents explain Australia’s future role in Antarctica and outline the measures we need to implement to retain our role as an Antarctic leader. These measures include things such as the re-establishment of our overland traverse capability, an upgrade of our ageing Antarctic stations and the investigation of year-round aviation links.

Progress is being made. Australia’s newest icebreaker was recently named and the first steel was cut in June 2017. A Modernisation Taskforce has been established.

Australia’s new icebreaker will be called RSV Nuyina.
Australian Antarctic Division/Damen/DMS Maritime/Knud E Hansen

Without these vital infrastructure and operational assets, we lose the ability to conduct science across our territorial claim. If we lose this, we can no longer wield science as a valuable diplomatic tool.

Science as a bridge builder

Science has long served as a bridge builder in Antarctica, but how long can it sustain this role?

The importance of ongoing scientific collaboration between Australia and China in Antarctica has been discussed.

It is generally asserted that the capacity of science to serve as a form of “soft power” diplomacy is sound and that sovereignty can best be sustained by deploying a continuous and substantial scientific program.

Read more: Revenge served cold: was Scott of the Antarctic sabotaged by his angry deputy?

But, although Antarctica is considered “a reserve for peace and science” under International governance, the robustness of the Antarctic Treaty too is often discussed. Contemporary media continues to illustrate concerns over our claim in Antarctica.

The Chief of the Australian Defence Force spoke recently on such matters in Washington and a colleague and I are currently examining the implications for Australian Defence policy of other states’ assertive actions in Antarctica.

The ConversationScience must continue to play a pivotal role in sustaining peace in Antarctica so that alternative tools need not be called upon.

Adrian McCallum, Lecturer in Science and Engineering, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Why are talks over an East Antarctic marine park still deadlocked?

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An Antarctic icebreaker sails past a penguin. But conservationists are still waiting for their own breakthrough.
John B. Weller, Author provided

Cassandra Brooks, University of Colorado

Last week, representatives from 24 countries plus the European Union met in Hobart to discuss plans for a vast marine protected area (MPA) off the coast of East Antarctica.

The proposed area, spanning almost 1 million square km, is crucial for a vast array of marine life. Scientists, conservationists and governments have been pushing for the protection of this area for upwards of seven years.

Why, then, has the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) failed to deliver, despite having agreed similar protections for other areas of the Southern Ocean?

Competing national incentives among member states, and complex international relations extending far beyond the negotiations themselves, have stymied consensus as states negotiate power and fishing access in this icy commons at the bottom of the world.

Read more: Why Antarctica depends on Australia and China’s alliance

CCAMLR committed to establishing a network of marine parks in the Southern Ocean in 2002 and has enjoyed success. In 2009 it established the world’s first international MPA, covering 94,000 square km south of the South Orkney Islands. Then, in 2016, the Commission made headlines when it successfully negotiated the world’s largest marine park, covering 1.55 million square km in the Ross Sea.

This raised hopes for a similar breakthrough for East Antarctica at this year’s meeting. But those hopes were put on hold for another year.

Vast protections

According to plans first proposed to CCAMLR in 2012 by Australia, France and the EU, the East Antarctic marine park was designed as a representative system of seven marine protected areas, covering 1.8 million square km that would capture key ecosystem processes.

By 2017 the seven zones had been scaled back to three, covering just under 1 million square km – largely to accommodate some member states’ economic interests and political concerns.

CCAMLR current MPAs in the South Orkney Islands (adopted in 2009) and Ross Sea (adopted in 2016) and proposed MPA off the East Antarctic. Original 2012 East Antarctic MPA proposal shown in light purple and current 2017 proposal in dark purple. Figure modified after Brooks et al. 2016.

Coming into 2017, proponents had worked to strengthen the East Antarctic MPA proposal, achieving the support of all states except Russia and China.

This obstruction is not novel. These two states have been the most vocal opponents of MPAs throughout the history of the negotiations, citing a variety of concerns including fishing interests, sufficiency of science, conservation need, and political accusations.

Fishing interests

Fishing interests have been a crucial factor in the negotiations, not just for China and Russia but also for the bulk of fishing states, which make up the majority of the Commission.

One of the reasons the South Orkney Islands reserve was adopted swiftly in 2009 was because it did not interfere with current or future fishing interests. Following this precedent, the Ross Sea marine reserve was designed largely around the lucrative fishing grounds for toothfish, and China only agreed to the plans after a krill-fishing zone was added in 2015 – despite the fact that neither China nor any other member state currently fishes for krill in the Ross Sea.

Small toothfish fisheries are scattered throughout the East Antarctic, including within the proposed MPA. However, this proposal has a multiple-use design, and none of the areas are explicitly closed to fishing. Yet some of Russia’s and China’s opposition concerned potential limitations to fishing. Why?

As a commons where sovereignty is suspended under the Antarctic Treaty, the Southern Ocean continues to be a contested space. Fishing can be used as a means to occupy space in this global commons, meeting geopolitical as well economic goals by asserting power and securing future access.

In recent years China has used the debate over MPAs to challenge the intentions of the very CCAMLR Convention as one inherently offering members a right to fish rather than a responsibility to conserve. A new Chinese krill fishing effort in the East Antarctic that initiated last year may be worth more in terms of geopolitics than it is in terms of money.

Finding opportunities to break the deadlock

How can the deadlock be broken? Perhaps negotiators can learn from the success of the Ross Sea marine park plan where high-level diplomacy created a political window of opportunity. China’s support was secured in 2015, after presidential-level bilateral meetings with the United States.

Read more: How China came in from the cold to help set up Antarctica’s vast new marine park

That left Russia as the only nation not to support the plan – a bad look, given that it was preparing to chair the 2016 meeting, and President Vladimir Putin had declared 2017 a special Year of Ecology. Russia had the opportunity and incentives to demonstrate leadership.

But also importantly, the US Secretary of State John Kerry was personally invested in the outcome, and throughout 2016 he had been liaising with his counterparts in Russia. Pressure was building both inside and outside the meeting room. After securing concessions to increase the amount of toothfish fishing in certain zones, Russia eventually approved the plans.

The process of building consensus for adopting CCAMLR MPAs, with particular focus on the Ross Sea MPA during the 2013–2016 time period. Figure modified after Brooks 2017.

In managing one of the great oceanic commons, despite political plays, CCAMLR has demonstrated leadership in adopting marine protected areas. The Southern Ocean now harbours the world’s largest marine park in the Ross Sea. Despite the latest setback a proposal for the East Antarctic remains on the table as well as plans for other marine parks in the Weddell Sea and off the Antarctic Peninsula.

The ConversationSecuring international agreements takes patience and it is often unclear in the moment how a political window of opportunity opens. It may still take some time to align national incentives and generate international diplomacy for the East Antarctic MPA and the others to come. The Commission’s 25 members ultimately need to find the political will to see it through.

Cassandra Brooks, Assistant Professor Environmental Studies, University of Colorado

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.