As global temperatures rise, Antarctica’s ecology is also changing, but Earth’s climate must change drastically before the continent can support agriculture and permanent settlers.
Antarctica is a very cold place with very unfavorable conditions, the average winter temperature of which is minus 49 degrees Celsius. The wind speed of Antarctica reaches 321 km/h and its annual rainfall is only 166 mm. So, it’s not surprising that the southernmost continent on Earth is also the least populated, with few scientists doing research there and no permanent inhabitants.
But due to technological advances and climate change, is it possible to change this situation? Could Antarctica ever support the kind of permanent human settlements seen elsewhere on Earth?
While a certain group of invasive plant and animal species are moving into a warming Antarctica, humans are not yet on the list, and likely will be for at least the next century. One of the reasons for this is that the current climate and land of Antarctica does not support plants and animals that are grown for food.
Another obstacle is the remote location of Antarctica. Although this environment is unfavorable, it is not much different from some arctic regions such as Greenland, Iceland, and the higher latitude regions of Norway, Russia, Canada, and Alaska in the United States that have permanent residents.
Steven Chavan, professor of biological sciences at Manche University in Australia Live Science If the only problem with Antarctica was the weather, people might be able to settle there permanently, he said. But its geographic isolation means that such communities must be maintained by importing food and other goods.
Currently, some research stations in Antarctica are supported by renewable energy from wind turbines and solar panels. Building a nationwide power grid on this continent means building on an ice sheet that may change in the future due to the effects of global warming.
Julie Brigham Garrett, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, told LiveScience that if all the stations there used mostly wind and solar power, the grid wouldn’t be needed, and advances in battery technology could help people survive the dark winter months.
Antarctic climate: distant past and near future
This frozen continent may not currently be suitable for permanent residents. But has the Antarctic climate ever been favorable, and given that the Earth is warming, might it become habitable in the future?
According to Chaun, we can see from the fossil record that the Antarctic climate was suitable for forests and dinosaurs in the past.
Around 100 million years ago, Antarctica supported a rich vegetation, substantial forests and a wide range of organisms such as conifers, ferns and flowering plants. In 2021, charred remains were found in James Ross (part of the sub-Antarctic Peninsula of South America), which indicated that during the Late Cretaceous period, between 100 million and 66 million years ago, the forests of this region were burned by natural fires.
Earth’s climate changes over hundreds of millions of years, alternating between colder glacial periods and warmer interglacial periods.
Paleoclimatologists look to the land’s distant past to understand what Antarctica’s climate might be like in the future. A group of researchers, including Brigham Garrett, by studying the sedimentary layers of the Ross Ice Shelf, found out that the West Antarctic ice sheet collapsed and re-formed several times. According to Brigham Garrett, this shrinking and expanding of the ice sheet, which happened repeatedly, was probably related to very warm interglacial periods, and these climatic fluctuations are closely related to changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, including the increase and decrease of carbon dioxide.
Although the changes described historically have occurred over hundreds of thousands of years, greenhouse gas emissions are currently changing the Earth’s climate at an unprecedented rate. If we don’t reach net-zero emissions by 2040, rising temperatures from greenhouse gas emissions will be the biggest driver of Antarctic change, Chaun said.
To imagine the type of environment that might emerge as temperatures rise, look at the subtropical islands and the ecology of the southernmost parts of South America.
The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the northernmost (highest latitude) parts of the continent that stretches from the Antarctic Circle to South America. The city of Ushuaia in Argentina is only 1095 km away from there. As global average temperatures rise, the climate of the Antarctic Peninsula will change, possibly resembling the southernmost parts of South America or islands in the surrounding seas.
Currently, native grasses, few insects, migratory birds and marine mammals live in the Antarctic Peninsula. As the climate warms, we are likely to see more diversity in plants. If this trend continues, in the near future, higher temperatures and increased rainfall will encourage the growth of native plants as well as invasive species accidentally introduced by humans.
Although the cold temperatures mean we’re unlikely to see any forests in Antarctica anytime soon. Chavan and Brigham Garrett agree that it is highly unlikely that Antarctica will support crops or livestock over the next century.
All in all, it is unlikely that in the near future we will be able to establish permanent human settlements in Antarctica that can support their needs through the cultivation of crops or livestock.
Although the climate of Antarctica is changing and the increase in the average temperature of the earth has changed the ecology of this continent. a type of annual grassPoa annua), which is seen in temperate cities such as Cape Town, South Africa, and Melbourne, Australia, has also been observed in Antarctica. Even a colony of gentoo penguins spotted in Antarctica in early 2022 is a matter of concern, as the ice-averse birds live on sub-Antarctic islands and are likely moving towards them as climate change warms the southernmost continent. Have.
Melting of Antarctic ice sheets
Apart from the peninsula, most of this continent is an ice sheet whose thickness reaches several kilometers in some places.
Climate modeling predicts that the ice-free zone will expand in the future, but at the highest elevations, it’s unlikely to see a significant change until 2100, according to Chaun.
The melting of the western Jenavigan ice sheet and as a result the sea level rise will not only change the geography of Antarctica but also the climate of the entire planet. Brigham Garrett said:
Most of West Antarctica is under sea, but rising water levels further submerge island reefs, but do not completely submerge them. In addition, in the future the ice shelves will disappear, so we need to ensure that the settlements that are built are above sea level.
In the years after 2100, rising temperatures and sea levels are likely to accelerate the migration of climate refugees. If the colder climate of Antarctica makes this continent have more favorable conditions than the warmer parts of the earth, people may seek to settle in this continent.
Even without growing crops, melting sea ice may mean people in the area can fish.
But despite the efforts of scientists to explore and study the most inhospitable and uninhabitable continent, it is unlikely that humans will be able to settle permanently in this area soon.