March 30, 2011

Antarctic marine ecosystems damaged by human activities

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Humanity is in danger of “dumbing down” the endemic fauna and unique ecology of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, says a University of Alabama at Birmingham professor and fellow scientists in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences.

Jim McClintock

“Antarctica is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to measuring the effects of humans on the earth,” says James McClintock, Ph.D., UAB Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology. “Changes in the environment usually happen there first, so it has become a natural laboratory for measuring the effects of climate warming, ocean acidification, invasive species and more.”

McClintock co-authored this review with lead author Richard Aronson, a paleoecologist at the Florida Institute of Technology; Sven Thatje, Ph.D., of the University of Southampton’s School of Ocean and Earth Science based at the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre; and Kevin Hughes, Ph.D., from the British Antarctic Survey based in Cambridge, UK. 

The team reviewed a wide range of human activities and identified historical and ongoing actions that have damaged or restructured food webs in the Southern Ocean in recent decades.

“Some, such as pollution or overfishing, can be relatively localized but are considered immediate threats,” says Hughes. “On the other hand, global climate change caused by human emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases has the potential to affect the entire Antarctic region for decades to come.”

Antarctica has great, untapped natural resources, McClintock says. Though the Antarctic Treaty prohibits the extraction of oil and other mineral resources from Antarctica, researchers note that areas outside the Southern Ocean could be claimed by nations as valuable real estate for the future.

The Antarctic Treaty and other conventions also cannot address global-scale threats.

“It is clear that multiple causal factors are damaging the health of marine systems in Antarctica; we need to understand the relative importance of these factors and how they interact in space and time,” Thatje said.

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