Antarctic marine life to bear brunt of climate change on continent

Kendall Hutt
Source: 1News

Marine life in Antarctica will bear the brunt of climate change impacts on the continent, a new report says.

The report - Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment - from the Scientific Committee of Antarctic Research has been presented to the 12 nations part of the Antarctic Treaty in Berlin.

It says the acidification of the ocean, changes to sea ice, ice shelf loss and the warming of the ocean's surface could see species, ecosystems and food webs change or go extinct.

This is largely down to impacts on krill, which penguins, seals, seabirds and whales - even humans - eat.

READ MORE: Sea levels rising twice as fast as thought in some parts of NZ

Changes in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are linked to, and influence, climate impact drivers around the world.

One of the report's authors, Steven Chown, told Breakfast Antarctic protolife will essentially fall off the ends of the earth.

"Tropical species can move to where it's cooler, but species that really need the cold have got nowhere to go.

"So we're on this path, we've set out on this path, to change a world that is just fantastic for all of us, by losing all of these species."

Chown said species such as krill and plankton form the basis of the marine food web. Without them, "one's altering all of the iconic things we've come to know and appreciate".

Emperor penguins.

"Albatrosses, penguins, seals and krill feeders will be substantially affected as a consequence."

The population of emperor penguins, which has already declined over the last 10 years, could fall close to extinction with "business-as-usual climate scenarios".

Chown said the message is to get emissions down - and quickly.

"There has to be real urgency of action. What's good for Antarctica is actually good for everywhere else."

But there could also be significant impacts on humans too, the report warns.

There are projections the melting of the continent's two ice sheets will contribute substantially to global mean sea level rise.

If it were to melt entirely, it would contribute around 58m in sea level rise.

It is projected global mean sea level rise will be 1.02m before 2100, although 1.6m and 2.3m has been bandied about depending on if greenhouse gas emissions are addressed.

Sea level rise approaching 2m by 2100 and up to 5m by 2150 under a very high greenhouse gas emissions scenario also exists.

By 2300, high emissions climate models predict up to 16m global mean sea level rise.

Ice melting.

Antarctica itself is expected to contribute up to 0.03 to 0.34m to sea level rise by 2100.

With only 40cm of sea level rise, a once-in-a-century flood event turns into an annual event, Chown said.

"We're dramatically changing the way the world would work. There would be hundreds of millions of people that will be displaced as a consequence if we don't actually get on top of our emissions and reduce them rapidly."

Changes to the atmosphere, ocean and cryosphere were also noted.

The report contains a host of policy recommendations and warns immediate and deep emissions reductions are required.

"Effective action is now more urgent than it has ever been."