A landmark report confirms Australia is girt by hotter, higher seas. But there’s still time to act



Aerial imagery revealing the extent of storm damage in Dee Why on Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 2016 following wild weather.
NEARMAP/AAP

Jess Melbourne-Thomas, CSIRO; Kathleen McInnes, CSIRO; Nathan Bindoff, University of Tasmania, and Nerilie Abram, Australian National University

A landmark scientific report has confirmed that climate change is altering the world’s seas and ice at an unprecedented rate. Australia depends on the ocean that surrounds us for our health and prosperity. So what does this mean for us, and life on Earth?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings were launched in Monaco on Wednesday night. They provide the most definitive scientific evidence yet of warmer, more acidic and less productive seas. Glaciers and ice sheets are melting, causing sea level to rise at an accelerating rate.

The implications for Australia are serious. Extreme sea level events that used to hit once a century will occur once a year in many of the world’s coastal places by 2050. This situation is inevitable, even if greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically curbed.

The findings, titled the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, strengthen the already compelling case for countries to meet their emission reduction goals under the 2015 Paris agreement.

Beachgoers cool off in the water at Bondi Beach in Sydney, February 2019. Australia’s coast dwellers must adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change.
Joel Carrett/AAP



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A rapid and dramatic cut in greenhouse gas emissions would prevent the most catastrophic damage to the ocean and cryosphere (frozen polar and mountain regions). This would help protect the ecosystems and people that rely on them.

The report entailed two years of work by 104 authors and review editors from 36 countries, who assessed nearly 7,000 scientific papers and responded to more than 30,000 review comments.

The picture is worse than we thought

Mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets are shrinking and, together with expansion of the warming ocean, are contributing to an increasing rate of sea level rise.

During the last century, global sea levels rose about 15cm. Seas are now rising more than twice as fast – 3.6mm per year – and accelerating, the report shows.

The IPCC’s projections are more dire than in its 2014 oceans report. It has revised upwards by 10% the effect of the melting Antarctic ice sheet on sea level rise by 2100. Antarctica appears to be changing more rapidly than was thought possible even five years ago, and further work is needed to understand just how quickly ice will be lost from Antarctica in future.

Key components and changes of the ocean and cryosphere, and their linkages in the Earth system.
IPCC, 2019

If you live near the Australian coast, change is coming

By 2050, more than one billion of the world’s people will live on coastal land less than 10 metres above sea level. They will be exposed to combinations of sea level rise, extreme winds, waves, storm surges and flooding from intensified storms and tropical cyclones.

Many of Australia’s coastal cities and communities can expect to experience what was previously a once-in-a-century extreme coastal flooding event at least once every year by the middle of this century.

Our island neighbours in Indonesia and the Pacific will also be hit hard. The report warns that some island nations are likely to become uninhabitable – although the extent of this is hard to assess accurately.

Some change is inevitable and we will have to adapt. But the report also delivered a strong message about the choices that still remain. In the case of extreme sea level events around Australia, we believe a marked global reduction in greenhouse as emissions would buy us more than 10 years of extra time, in some places, to protect our coastal communities and infrastructure from the rising ocean.

Indonesian residents wade through flood water in Jakarta. The northwestern part of Jakarta is rapidly sinking.
MAST IRHAM/EPA

More frequent extreme events are often occurring at the same time or in quick succession. Tasmania’s summer of 2015-16 is a good example. The state experienced record-breaking drought which worsened the fire threat in the highlands. An unprecedented marine heatwave along the east coast damaged kelp forests and caused disease and death of shellfish, and the state’s northeast suffered severe flooding.

This string of events stretched emergency services, energy supplies and the aquaculture and manufacturing industries. The total economic cost to the state government was an estimated A$445 million. The impacts on the food, energy and manufacturing sectors cut Tasmania’s anticipated economic growth by about half.

Reefs and fish stocks are suffering

The ocean has taken a huge hit from climate change – taking up heat, absorbing carbon dioxide that makes the water more acidic, and losing oxygen. It will bring ocean conditions unlike anything we have seen before.

Marine ecosystems and fisheries around the world are under pressure from this barrage of stressors. Overall, the fisheries potential around Australia’s coasts is expected to decline during this century.

Heat build-up in the surface ocean has already triggered a marked rise in the intensity, frequency and duration of marine heatwaves. Ocean heatwaves are expected to become between four and ten times more common this century, depending on how rapidly global warming continues.

The report said coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, are already at very high risk from climate change and are expected to suffer significant losses and local extinctions. This would occur even if global warming is limited to 1.5℃ – a threshold the world is set to overshoot by a wide margin.




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Extreme weather caused by climate change has damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitat


Our choices now are critical for the future

This report reinforces the findings of earlier reports on the importance of limiting global warming warming to 1.5℃ if we are to avoid major impacts on the land, the ocean and frozen areas.

Even if we act now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some damage is already locked in and our ocean and frozen regions will continue to change for decades to centuries to come.

Mertz Glacier in east Antarctica. IPCC scientists say the expected effect of melting Antarctic ice on sea level rise is worse than projected five years ago.
Australian Antarctic Division

In Australia, we will need to adapt our coastal cities and communities to unavoidable sea level rise. There are a range of possible options, from building barriers to planned relocation, to protecting the coral reefs and mangroves that provide natural coastal defences.

But if we want to give adaptation the best chance of working, the clear message of this new report is that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.The Conversation

Jess Melbourne-Thomas, Transdisciplinary Researcher & Knowledge Broker, CSIRO; Kathleen McInnes, Senior research scientist, CSIRO; Nathan Bindoff, Professor of Physical Oceanography, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Meet the super corals that can handle acid, heat and suffocation


Resilient corals are offering hope for bleached reefs.
Emma Camp

Emma F Camp, University of Technology Sydney and David Suggett, University of Technology Sydney

Climate change is rapidly changing the oceans, driving coral reefs around the world to breaking point. Widely publicised marine heatwaves aren’t the only threat corals are facing: the seas are increasingly acidic, have less oxygen in them, and are gradually warming as a whole.

Each of these problems reduces coral growth and fitness, making it harder for reefs to recover from sudden events such as massive heatwaves.




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Acid oceans are shrinking plankton, fuelling faster climate change


Our research, published today in Marine Ecology Progress Series, investigates corals on the Great Barrier Reef that are surprisingly good at surviving in increasingly hostile waters. Finding out how these “super corals” can live in extreme environments may help us unlock the secret of coral resilience helping to save our iconic reefs.

Bleached coral in the Seychelles.
Emma Camp, Author provided

Coral conservation under climate change

The central cause of these problems is climate change, so the central solution is reducing carbon emissions. Unfortunately, this is not happening rapidly enough to help coral reefs, so scientists also need to explore more immediate conservation options.

To that end, many researchers have been looking at coral that manages to grow in typically hostile conditions, such as around tide pools and intertidal reef zones, trying to unlock how they become so resilient.

These extreme coral habitats are not only natural laboratories, they house a stockpile of extremely tolerant “super corals”.

What exactly is a super coral?

“Super coral” generally refers to species that can survive both extreme conditions and rapid changes in their environment. But “super” is not a very precise term!

Our previous research quantified these traits so other ecologists can more easily use super coral in conservation. There are a few things that need to be established to determine whether a coral is “super”:

  1. What hazard can the coral survive? For example, can it deal with high temperature, or acidic water?

  2. How long did the hazard last? Was it a short heatwave, or a long-term stressor such as ocean warming?

  3. Did the coral survive because of a quality such as genetic adaption, or was it tucked away in a particularly safe spot?

  4. How much area does the coral cover? Is it a small pocket of resilience, or a whole reef?

  5. Is the coral trading off other important qualities to survive in hazardous conditions?

  6. Is the coral super enough to survive the changes coming down the line? Is it likely to cope with future climate change?

If a coral ticks multiple boxes in this list, it’s a very robust species. Not only will it cope well in our changing oceans, we can also potentially distribute these super corals along vulnerable reefs.

Some corals cope surprisingly well in different conditions.
Emma Camp, Author provided

Mangroves are surprise reservoirs

We discovered mangrove lagoons near coral reefs can often house corals living in very extreme conditions – specifically, warm, more acidic and low oxygen seawater.

Previously we have reported corals living in extreme mangroves of the Seychelles, Indonesia, New Caledonia – and in our current study living on the Great Barrier Reef. We report diverse coral populations surviving in conditions more hostile than is predicted over the next 100 years of climate change.

Importantly, while some of these sites only have isolated populations, other areas have actively building reef frameworks.

Particularly significant were the two mangrove lagoons on the Great Barrier Reef. They housed 34 coral species, living in more acidic water with very little oxygen. Temperatures varied widely, over 7℃ in the period we studied – and included periods of very high temperatures that are known to cause stress in other corals.

Mangrove lagoons can contain coral that survives in extremely hostile environments, while nearby coral reefs bleach in marine heatwaves.
Emma Camp, Author provided

While coral cover was often low and the rate at which they build their skeleton was reduced, there were established coral colonies capable of surviving in these conditions.

The success of these corals reflect their ability to adapt to daily or weekly conditions, and also their flexible relationship with various symbiotic micro-algae that provide the coral with essential resources.

While we are still in the early phases of understanding exactly how these corals can aid conservation, extreme mangrove coral populations hold a reservoir of stress-hardened corals. Notably the geographic size of these mangrove locations are small, but they have a disproportionately high conservation value for reef systems.




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Heat-tolerant corals can create nurseries that are resistant to bleaching


However, identification of these pockets of extremely tolerant corals also challenge our understanding of coral resilience, and of the rate and extent with which coral species can resist stress.The Conversation

Emma F Camp, DECRA & UTS Chancellor’s Research Fellow, Climate Change Cluster, Future Reefs Research Programe, University of Technology Sydney and David Suggett, Associate Professor in Marine Biology, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Sharks: one in four habitats in remote open ocean threatened by longline fishing



Though they’re protected worldwide, great white sharks encounter longline fishing vessels in half of their range.
Wildestanimal/Shutterstock

David Sims, University of Southampton

Unlike the many species which stalk the shallow, coastal waters that fisheries exploit all year round, pelagic sharks roam the vast open oceans. These are the long-distance travellers of the submarine world and include the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, and also one of the fastest fish in the sea, the shortfin mako shark, capable of swimming at 40mph.

Because these species range far from shore, you might expect them to escape most of the lines and nets that fishing vessels cast. But over the last 50 years, industrial scale fisheries have extended their reach across the world’s oceans and tens of millions of pelagic sharks are now caught every year for their valuable fins and meat.

On average, large pelagic sharks account for over half of all shark species identified in catches worldwide. The toll this has taken on species such as the shortfin mako has prompted calls to introduce catch limits in the high seas – areas of the ocean beyond national jurisdiction where there is little or no management for the majority of shark species.

We wanted to know where the ocean’s shark hotspots are – the places where lots of different species gather – and how much these places are worked by fishing boats. We took up the challenge of finding out where pelagic sharks hang out by satellite tracking their movements with electronic tags. This approach by our international team of over 150 scientists from 26 countries has an important advantage over fishery catch records. Rather than showing where a fishing boat found them, it can precisely map all of the places sharks visit.

Nowhere to hide

For a new study published in Nature we tracked nearly 2,000 sharks from 23 different species, including great whites, blue sharks, shortfin mako and tiger sharks. We were able to map their positions in unprecedented detail and discern the most visited hotspots where sharks feed, breed and rest.

Hotspots were often located in frontal zones – boundaries in the sea between different water masses that can have the best conditions of temperature and nutrients for phytoplankton to bloom, which attracts masses of zooplankton, as well as the fish and squid that sharks eat.

Then we calculated how much these hotspots overlapped with global fleets of large, longline fishing vessels, which we also tracked by satellite. This type of fishing gear is used very widely on the high seas and catches more pelagic sharks than trawls and other gear. Each longline vessel is capable of deploying a 100km long line bearing over 1,000 baited hooks.

We found that even the most remote parts of the ocean that are many miles from land offer pelagic sharks little refuge from industrial-scale fishing fleets. One in four of the places sharks visited each month overlapped with the areas longline fishing vessels operated in.

Sharks such as the North Atlantic blue and the shortfin mako – which fishers also target for their fins and meat – were much more likely to encounter these vessels, with as much as 76% of the places these species visited most in each month overlapping with where longline vessels were fishing. Even internationally protected species such as great whites and porbeagle sharks encountered longline vessels in half of their tracked range.

It’s now clear that much of the world’s fishing activity on the high seas is centred on shark hotspots, which longlines rake for much of the year. Many large sharks, which are already endangered, face a future without refuge from industrial fishing in the places they gather.

High seas marine protected areas

The maps of shark hotspots and longline fishing activity that we created can at least provide a blueprint for where large-scale marine protected areas aimed at conserving sharks could be set. Outside of these, strict quotas could reduce catches.

The United Nations is creating a high seas treaty for protecting ocean biodiversity – negotiations are due to continue in August 2019 in New York. They’ll consider large-scale marine protected areas for the high seas and we’ll suggest where these could be located to best protect pelagic sharks.

Satellite monitoring could give real-time signals of where sharks and other threatened creatures such as turtles and whales are gathering. Tracking where these species roam and where fishers interact with them will help patrol vessels monitor these high-risk zones more efficiently.

Such management action is overdue for many shark populations in the high seas. Take North Atlantic shortfin makos – not only are they overfished
and endangered, but now we know they have no respite from longline fishing during many months of the year in the places they gather most often. Some of these shark hotspots may not exist in the near future if action isn’t taken now to conserve these species and the habitats they depend on.The Conversation

David Sims, Professor of Marine Ecology, University of Southampton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Suffering in the heat: the rise in marine heatwaves is harming ocean species



File 20190303 110119 1w5b8am.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Recent marine heatwaves have devastated crucial coastal habitats, including kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs.
Dan Smale, Author provided

Dan Smale, Marine Biological Association and Thomas Wernberg, University of Western Australia

In the midst of a raging heatwave, most people think of the ocean as a nice place to cool down. But heatwaves can strike in the ocean as well as on land. And when they do, marine organisms of all kinds – plankton, seaweed, corals, snails, fish, birds and mammals – also feel the wrath of soaring temperatures.

Our new research, published today in Nature Climate Change, makes abundantly clear the destructive force of marine heatwaves. We compared the effects on ecosystems of eight marine heatwaves from around the world, including four El Niño events (1982-83, 1986-87, 1991-92, 1997-98), three extreme heat events in the Mediterranean Sea (1999, 2003, 2006) and one in Western Australia in 2011. We found that these events can significantly damage the health of corals, kelps and seagrasses.

This is concerning, because these species form the foundation of many ecosystems, from the tropics to polar waters. Thousands of other species – not to mention a wealth of human activities – depend on them.

We identified southeastern Australia, southeast Asia, northwestern Africa, Europe and eastern Canada as the places where marine species are most at risk of extreme heat in the future.




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Marine heatwaves are getting hotter, lasting longer and doing more damage


Marine heatwaves are defined as periods of five days or more during which ocean temperatures are unusually high, compared with the long-term average for any given place. Just like their counterparts on land, marine heatwaves have been getting more frequent, hotter and longer in recent decades. Globally, there were 54% more heatwave days per year between 1987 and 2016 than in 1925–54.

Although the heatwaves we studied varied widely in their maximum intensity and duration, we found that all of them had negative impacts on a broad range of different types of marine species.

Marine heatwaves in tropical regions have caused widespread coral bleaching.

Humans also depend on these species, either directly or indirectly, because they underpin a wealth of ecological goods and services. For example, many marine ecosystems support commercial and recreational fisheries, contribute to carbon storage and nutrient cycling, offer venues for tourism and recreation, or are culturally or scientifically significant.




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.

Marine heatwaves have had negative impacts on virtually all these “ecosystem services”. For example, seagrass meadows in the Mediterranean Sea, which store significant amounts of carbon, are harmed by extreme temperatures recorded during marine heatwaves. In the summers of both 2003 and 2006, marine heatwaves led to widespread seagrass deaths.




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The marine heatwaves off the west coast of Australia in 2011 and northeast America in 2012 led to dramatic changes in the regionally important abalone and lobster fisheries, respectively. Several marine heatwaves associated with El Niño events caused widespread coral bleaching with consequences for biodiversity, fisheries, coastal erosion and tourism.

Mass die-offs of finfish and shellfish have been recorded during marine heatwaves, with major consequences for regional fishing industries.

All evidence suggests that marine heatwaves are linked to human mediated climate change and will continue to intensify with ongoing global warming. The impacts can only be minimised by combining rapid, meaningful reductions in greenhouse emissions with a more adaptable and pragmatic approach to the management of marine ecosystems.The Conversation

Dan Smale, Research Fellow in Marine Ecology, Marine Biological Association and Thomas Wernberg, Associate professor, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A current affair: the movement of ocean waters around Australia



File 20181219 27776 1jdhree.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Where do the ocean waters that wash the Gold Coast come from?
Flickr/LJ Mears , CC BY-NC-SA

Charitha Pattiaratchi, University of Western Australia; Ems Wijeratne, University of Western Australia, and Roger Proctor, University of Tasmania

Many people in Australia will head to the beach this summer and that’ll most likely include a dip or a plunge into the sea. But have you ever wondered where those ocean waters come from, and what influence they may have?

Australia is surrounded by ocean currents that have a strong controlling influence on things such as climate, ecosystems, fish migrations, the transport of ocean debris and on water quality.

We did a study, published in April 2018, that helps to give us a better understanding of those ocean currents.

Surface currents around the Australian continent.
Ems Wijeratne/Charitha Pattiaratchi/Roger Proctor



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Go with the flow: Indian Ocean

Our 15 year simulation indicates that water from the Pacific Ocean enters the Indonesian Archipelago through the Mindanao current (north) and Halmahera Sea (south).

It then enters the Indian ocean as the Indonesian Throughflow between many Indonesian Islands, with flow through the Timor Passage being the most dominant.

Most of this water flows west as the South Equatorial Current. Re-circulation of the SEC creates the Eastern Gyre that contributes to the Holloway Current. This in turn feeds the Leeuwin Current – the longest boundary current in the world (Ocean currents that flow adjacent to a coastline are called boundary currents)

The Leeuwin Current is the major boundary current along the west coast and as it moves southward. Indian Ocean water is supplied by the South Indian Counter Current increasing the Leeuwin Current transport by 60%.

The Leeuwin Current turns east at Cape Leeuwin, in Western Australia’s south-west, and continues to Tasmania as the South Australian and Zeehan Currents.

The Leeuwin Current passes the lighthouse at the Cape Leeuwin in WA.
Flickr/Cheng, CC BY-NC-ND

There is a strong seasonal variation in the strength of the boundary currents in the Indian Ocean with a progression southwards of the peak transport along the coast.

The Holloway Current peaks in April/May (coinciding with changes in the monsoon winds), the Leeuwin Current reaches a maximum along the west and south coasts in June and August.




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Go with the flow: Pacific Ocean

In the Pacific Ocean, the northern branches of the South Equatorial Current are the main inputs initiating the Hiri Current and East Australian Current.

At around latitude 15 degrees south the currents split in two: southward to form the East Australian Current, and northward to form the Hiri Current which contributes to a clockwise gyre in the Gulf of Papua.

The East Australian Current is the dominant current in the region transporting 33 million cubic metres of water per second southward.

At around 32S, the East Australian Current separates from the coast and 60% of the water flows eastward to New Zealand as the Tasman Front. The remaining 40% flows southward as the East Australian Current extension and contributes to the Tasman Outflow.

The Tasman outflow is the major conduit of water from the Pacific to Indian Ocean and contributes to the Flinders Current, flowing westward from Tasmania and past Cape Leeuwin into the Indian Ocean.

Along the southern continental slope, the Flinders Current appears as an undercurrent beneath the Leeuwin Current and a surface current further offshore. The Flinders Current contributes to the Leeuwin Undercurrent directly as a northward flow, flowing to the north-west of Australia in water depths 300 metres to 800 metres.

Impact of the currents

Understanding ocean circulation is a fundamental tenet of physical oceanography and scientists have been charting the pathways of ocean currents since the American hydrographer Matthew Maury, one of the founders of oceanography, who first charted the Gulf Stream in 1855.

One of the first maps of circulation around Australia was by Halliday (1921) who showed the movement of “warm” and “cold” waters around Australia. Although some of the major features (such as the East Australian Current) were correctly identified, a more fine scale description is now available.

Ocean surface currents around Australia by Halliday 1921.

The unique feature of ocean currents around Australia is that along both east and west coasts they transport warmer water southwards and influence the local climate, particularly air temperature and rainfall, as well as species distribution.




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For example, the south west of Australia is up to 5C warmer in winter and receives more than double the rainfall compared to regions located on similar latitudes along western coastlines of other continents.

Similarly many tropical species of fish are found in the southwest of Australia that hitch a ride on the ocean currents.

The Pacific Ocean is the origin of waters around Australia with a direct link to the east and an indirect link to west.

Ocean water from the Pacific Ocean flows through the Indonesian Archipelago, a region subject to high solar heating and rainfall runoff, creating lower density water. This water, augmented by water from the Indian Ocean, flows around the western and southern coasts, converging along the southern coast of Tasmania.

So next time you head for a dip in the coastal waters around Australian, spare a thought for where that water has come from and where it may be going next.The Conversation

Time for a plunge in the water at Bondi Beach, NSW.
Flickr/Roderick Eime, CC BY-ND

Charitha Pattiaratchi, Professor of Coastal Oceanography, University of Western Australia; Ems Wijeratne, Assistant Professor, UWA Oceans Institute, University of Western Australia, and Roger Proctor, Director, Australian Ocean Data Network, University of Tasmania

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Antarctic seas host a surprising mix of lifeforms – and now we can map them



File 20180717 44100 1cjyz5d.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
In contrast to common perceptions, Antarctic seafloor communities are highly diverse. This image shows a deep East Antarctic reef with plenty of corals, sponges and brittlestars. Can you spot the octopus?
Australian Antarctic Division

Jan Jansen, University of Tasmania; Craig Johnson, University of Tasmania, and Nicole Hill, University of Tasmania

What sort of life do you associate with Antarctica? Penguins? Seals? Whales?

Actually, life in Antarctic waters is much broader than this, and surprisingly diverse. Hidden under the cover of sea-ice for most of the year, and living in cold water near the seafloor, are thousands of unique and colourful species.

A diverse seafloor community living under the ice near Casey station in East Antarctica.

Our research has generated new techniques to map where these species live, and predict how this might change in the future.

Biodiversity is nature’s most valuable resource, and mapping how it is distributed is a crucial step in conserving life and ecosystems in Antarctica.




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Surprises on the seafloor

The ocean surrounding the Antarctic continent is an unusual place. Here, water temperatures reach below freezing-point, and the ocean is covered in ice for most of the year.

While commonly known for its massive icebergs and iconic penguins, Antarctica’s best-kept secret lies on the seafloor far below the ocean surface. In this remote and isolated environment, a unique and diverse community of animals has evolved, half of which aren’t found anywhere else on the planet.

These solitary sea squirts stand up to half a metre tall at 220m depth in the dark, cold waters of East-Antarctica. Images such as this one were taken with cameras towed behind the Australian Icebreaker Aurora Australis.
Australian Antarctic Division

Colourful corals and sponges cover the seafloor, where rocks provide hard substrate for attachment. These creatures filter the water for microscopic algae that sink from the ocean surface during the highly productive summer season between December and March.

In turn, these habitat-forming animals provide the structure for all sorts of mobile animals, such as featherstars, seastars, crustaceans, sea spiders and giant isopods (marine equivalents of “slaters” or “woodlice”).

The Antarctic seafloor is also home to a unique group of fish that have evolved proteins to stop their blood from freezing.

Most Antarctic fish have evolved ‘anti-freeze blood’ allowing them to survive in water temperature below zero degrees C.
Australian Antarctic Division

Mapping biodiversity is hard

Biodiversity is a term that describes the variety of all life forms on Earth. The unprecedented rate of biodiversity loss is one of the biggest challenges of our time. And despite its remoteness, Antarctica’s biodiversity is not protected from human impact through climate change, pollution and fisheries.




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Although scientists have broadly known about Antarctica’s unique marine biodiversity for some time, we still lack knowledge of where each species lives and where important hotspots of biodiversity are located. This is an issue because it hinders us from understanding how the ecosystem functions – and makes it hard to assess potential threats.

Why don’t we know more about the distribution of Antarctic marine species? Primarily, because sampling at the seafloor a few thousand metres below the surface is difficult and expensive, and the Antarctic continental shelf is vast and remote. It usually takes the Australian Icebreaker Aurora Australis ten days to reach the icy continent.

A selection of the diverse and colourful species found on the Antarctic seafloor.
Huw Griffiths/British Antarctic Survey

To make the most of the sparse and patchy biological data that we do have, in our research we take advantage of the fact that species usually have a set of preferred environmental conditions. We use the species’ relationship with their environment to build statistical models that predict where species are most likely to occur.

This allows us to map their distribution in places where we have no biological samples and only environmental data. Critically, until now important environmental factors that influence the distribution of seafloor species have been missing.




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Antarctica has lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years. Time is running out for the frozen continent


Using predictions to make a map

In a recent study, we were able to predictively map how much food from the ocean-surface was available for consumption by corals, sponges and other suspension feeders at the seafloor.

The science behind linking food-particles from the ocean surface to the biodiversity of Antarctic seafloor fauna. Satellites (1) can detect the amount of algae at the ocean-surface. Algae-production is particularly high in ice-free areas (2) compared to under the sea-ice (3). Algae sink from the surface (4) and reach the seafloor. Where ocean-currents are high (5), many corals feed from the suspended particles. In areas with slow currents (6), particles settle onto the seafloor and feed deposit-feeding animals such as seacucumbers.
Jansen et al. (2018), Nature Ecology & Evolution 2, 71-80.

Although biological samples are still scarce, this allowed us to map the distribution of seafloor biodiversity in a region in East Antarctica with high accuracy.

Further, estimates of how and where the supply of food increased after the tip of a massive glacier broke off and changed ocean conditions in the region allowed us to predict where abundances of habitat forming fauna such as corals and sponges will increase in the future.

Colourful and diverse communities are also found living in shallow waters.
Australian Antarctic Division

Antarctica is one of the few regions where the total biomass of seafloor animals is likely to increase in the future. Retreating ice-shelves increase the amount of suitable habitat available and allow more food to reach the seafloor.

For the first time in history, we now have the information, computational power and research capacity to map the distribution of life on the entire continental shelf around Antarctica, identify previously unknown hotspots of biodiversity, and assess how the unique biodiversity of the Antarctic will change into the future.


The Conversation


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Jan Jansen, Quantitative Marine Ecologist, University of Tasmania; Craig Johnson, Professor, University of Tasmania, and Nicole Hill, Research fellow, University of Tasmania

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

Ocean waves and lack of sea ice can trigger Antarctic ice shelves to disintegrate


Luke Bennetts, University of Adelaide; Rob Massom, and Vernon Squire

Large waves after the loss of sea ice can trigger Antarctic ice shelf disintegration over a period of just days, according to our new research.

With other research also published today in Nature showing that the rate of annual ice loss from the vulnerable Antarctic Peninsula has quadrupled since 1992, our study of catastrophic ice shelf collapses during that time shows how the lack of a protective buffer of sea ice can leave ice shelves, already weakened by climate warming, wide open to attack by waves.




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Antarctica has lost 3 trillion tonnes of ice in 25 years. Time is running out for the frozen continent


Antarctica is covered by an ice sheet that is several kilometres thick in places. It covers an area of 14 million square kilometres – roughly twice the size of Australia. This ice sheet holds more than 90% of the world’s ice, which is enough to raise global mean sea level by 57 metres.

As snow falls and compacts on the ice sheet, the sheet thickens and flows out towards the coast, and then onto the ocean surface. The resulting “ice shelves” (and glacier tongues) buttress three-quarters of the Antarctic coastline. Ice shelves act as a crucial braking system for fast-flowing glaciers on the land, and thus moderate the ice sheet’s contribution to sea-level rise.

In the southern summer of 2002, scientists monitoring the Antarctic Peninsula (the northernmost part of mainland Antarctica) by satellite witnessed a dramatic ice shelf disintegration that was stunning in its abruptness and scale. In just 35 days, 3,250 square km of the Larsen B Ice Shelf (twice the size of Queensland’s Fraser Island) shattered, releasing an estimated 720 billion tonnes of icebergs into the Weddell Sea.

This wasn’t the first such recorded event. In January 1995, roughly 1,500 square km of the nearby Larsen A Ice Shelf suddenly disintegrated after several decades of warming and years of gradual retreat. To the southwest, the Wilkins Ice Shelf suffered a series of strikingly similar disintegration events in 1998, 2008 and 2009 — not only in summer but also in two of the Southern Hemisphere’s coldest months, May and July.

These sudden, large-scale fracturing events removed features that had been stable for centuries – up to 11,500 years in the case of Larsen B. While ice shelf disintegrations don’t directly raise sea level (because the ice shelves are already floating), the removal of shelf ice allows the glaciers behind them to accelerate their discharge of land-based ice into the ocean – and this does raise sea levels. Previous research has shown that the removal of Larsen B caused its tributary glaciers to flow eight times faster in the year following its disintegration.




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Cold and calculating: what the two different types of ice do to sea levels


The ocean around ice shelves is typically covered by a very different (but equally important) type of ice, called sea ice. This is formed from frozen seawater and is generally no more than a few metres thick. But it stretches far out into the ocean, doubling the area of the Antarctic ice cap when at its maximum extent in winter, and varying in extent throughout the year.

The response of Antarctic sea ice to climate change and variability is complex, and differs between regions. Around the Antarctic Peninsula, in the Bellingshausen and northwestern Weddell seas, it has clearly declined in extent and annual duration since satellite monitoring began in 1979, at a similar rate to the Arctic’s rapidly receding sea ice.

The Southern Ocean is also host to the largest waves on the planet, and these waves are becoming more extreme. Our new study focuses on “long-period” swell waves (with swells that last up to about 20 seconds). These are generated by distant storms and carry huge amounts of energy across the oceans, and can potentially flex the vulnerable outer margins of ice shelves.

The earliest whalers and polar pioneers knew that sea ice can damp these waves — Sir Ernest Shackleton reported it in his iconic book South!. Sea ice thus acts as a “buffer” that protects the Antarctic coastline, and its ice shelves, from destructive ocean swells.

Strikingly, all five of the sudden major ice shelf disintegrations listed above happened during periods when sea ice was abnormally low or even absent in these regions. This means that intense swell waves crashed directly onto the vulnerable ice shelf fronts.

The straw that broke the camel’s back

The Antarctic Peninsula has experienced particularly strong climate warming (roughly 0.5℃ per decade since the late 1940s), which has caused intense surface melting on its ice shelves and exacerbated their structural weaknesses such as fractures. These destabilising processes are the underlying drivers of ice shelf collapse. But they do not explain why the observed disintegrations were so abrupt.

Our new study suggests that the trigger mechanism was swell waves flexing and working weaknesses at the shelf fronts in the absence of sea ice, to the point where they calved away the shelf fronts in the form of long, thin “sliver-bergs”. The removal of these “keystone blocks” in turn led to the catastrophic breakup of the ice shelf interior, which was weakened by years of melt.

Our research thus underlines the complex and interdependent nature of the various types of Antarctic ice – particularly the important role of sea ice in forming a protective “buffer” for shelf ice. While much of the focus so far has been on the possibility of ice shelves melting from below as the sea beneath them warms, our research suggests an important role for sea ice and ocean swells too.

The edge of an ice shelf off the Antarctic Peninsula, with floating sea ice beyond (to the left in this image).
NASA/Maria Jose Vinas

In July 2017 an immense iceberg broke away from the Larsen C Ice Shelf, just south of Larsen B, prompting fears that it could disintegrate like its neighbours.

Our research suggests that four key factors will determine whether it does: extensive flooding and fracturing across the ice shelf; reduced sea ice coverage offshore; extensive fracturing of the ice shelf front; and calving of sliver-bergs.




Read more:
Don’t worry about the huge Antarctic iceberg – worry about the glaciers behind it


If temperatures continue to rise around the Antarctic, ice shelves will become weaker and sea ice less extensive, which would imply an increased likelihood of future disintegrations.

However, the picture is not that clear-cut, as not all remaining ice shelves are likely to respond in the same way to sea ice loss and swell wave impacts. Their response will also depend on their glaciological characteristics, physical setting, and the degree and nature of surface flooding. Some ice shelves may well be capable of surviving prolonged absences of sea ice.

The ConversationIrrespective of these differences, we need to include sea ice and ocean waves in our models of ice sheet behaviour. This will be a key step towards better forecasting the fate of Antarctica’s remaining ice shelves, and how much our seas will rise in response to projected climate change over coming decades. In parallel, our new findings underline the need to better understand and model the mechanisms responsible for recent sea ice trends around Antarctica, to enable prediction of likely future change in the exposure of ice shelves to ocean swells.

Luke Bennetts, Lecturer in applied mathematics, University of Adelaide; Rob Massom, Leader, Sea Ice Group, Antarctica & the Global System program, Australian Antarctic Division and Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, and Vernon Squire, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Professor of Applied Mathematics

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