Climate change is already happening in Antarctica, parts of it are some of the most rapidly warming places on the planet. One of the major barriers to robust conservation decisions is our lack of understanding about potential climate change impacts on biodiversity and environment. We began to fill this gap by determining how climate change might impact ice-free areas by the end of this century.
Our analysis revealed that as ice melts around ice-free areas, over 17,000 km2 of new ice-free area could emerge around the continent (Lee et al, 2017). This is a 25% increase on the current ice-free area. The majority of this (14,000 km2) will be on the Antarctic Peninsula, where the current amount of ice-free area could more than triple by the year 2100.
While the amount of ice-free area will increase, the total number of ice-free patches is projected to actually decrease across the Peninsula. This is because as individual patches expand they will start to merge, leading to an increase in connectivity in the region. The impacts of this change in habitat on biodiversity, therefore, could be profound.
Ice-free land in Antarctica is a rare commodity. But this is set to change dramatically as climate change begins to bite, and that will have enormous consequences for the biodiversity that currently depend on these areas. (Photo by Jasmine Lee)
The expansion and increasing connectivity will undoubtedly provide new dispersal and colonisation opportunities for some native species. However, it may also enhance the spread of non-native species, some of which are already present. Currently, Antarctica’s greatest protection against non-native species is its extremely harsh weather and climate. Climate change is expected to take some of the edge of this harshness by making the weather warmer and milder. This will allow the establishment of new non-native species that previously wouldn’t have had a chance.
And the opportunities for new species to make it to Antarctica are also likely to increase as the number of scientists and tourists visiting the region grows. Most non-native species reach the continent via ships and planes carrying scientists or tourists, with many species arriving in food or cargo shipments.