In her position as a research and policy associate with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), Kimberly Aiken works on numerous Antarctic environmental campaigns. ASOC particularly focuses on establishing marine protected areas (known as MPAs) in the Southern Ocean, responsible tourism in Antarctica, addressing the impacts of climate change in the region and improving fisheries management. ASOC’s main goal is to conserve and protect the continent and its ecosystem. In this interview, Kimberly tells us more about the challenges facing Antarctic wildlife and the ecosystem, and what we can do to help.
First things first, could you tell us something about Antarctica?
Of course! To start off, Antarctica doesn’t have any indigenous inhabitants and it doesn’t belong to one specific country, it belongs to all of us. It’s a global treasure for everyone on this planet, no matter how far removed we are from it. It’s governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, which consists of two international bodies. The first one is the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting or ATCM, which meets annually. The second one is CCAMLR, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which also meets annually.
One of the most important things to know about Antarctica is that it plays a significant role in controlling the climate. As the planet warms up, the glaciers and ice sheets of Antarctica respond by melting at a very rapid pace. This can contribute to a sea level rise in coastal areas, which then leads to environmental refugees all around the world.
We have a saying in the polar community that says: “What happens in Antarctica doesn’t stay in Antarctica.” This truly is the case – what happens there has an impact on any other region on the planet. Everything in our climatic system is connected!
That’s interesting! Can you tell us something about wildlife in Antarctica too? What problems are they facing?
There are two big challenges that the animals in Antarctica are facing. The first one is climate change. Some species of penguins, for example, are having trouble adapting to temperature rise. The second issue is the fishing industry. Most of the seals, penguins and whales have to compete with the fishing industry for Antarctic krill. On top of that, they have to make sure not to be hit by a vessel.
Antarctic krill is very important in Antarctica. Krill is a tiny species that feeds off of phytoplankton, which is found right underneath the sea ice. These creatures are the superheroes of the Southern Ocean because they have the ability to sequester carbon out of the water and then release it into the deep levels of the ocean. It’s amazing how a very tiny organism collectively helps us in the fight against CO2 – which is one of our biggest problems.
You also see a lot of migratory whales and orcas that transit through the Antarctic waters and feed on krill. Every single one of these species is very important. If one disappears, it would impact the entire ecosystem as they are all dependent on each other. What’s fascinating is that even today, new species of wildlife are being discovered in very deep parts of Antarctica that belong to this ecosystem! There’s an entire thriving world in many deep parts of the continent.
During the second half of the 20th century, Antarctica warmed up two times faster than other places in the world. What’s the reason for that?
The reason why it happens faster in Antarctica is because of the type of environment that exists there. Icy environments tend to hold heat in other ways than other environments.
For example, approximately 98% of Antarctica is covered by the Antarctic ice sheet. Antarctica has about 90% of the world’s ice and thereby about 70% of the world’s fresh water. Sometimes “heat domes” of warm air diffuse and spread over the continent. When this happens the moisture gets trapped above the sea ice retaining large amounts of heat which eventually moves downward causing warming on the surface.
The ice also has a high “albedo effect” that reflects about 84% of incoming solar radiation, but as the Earth gets warmer, the incoming heat from the sun is absorbed in the surface of the ice, and ocean water starts to warm. This causes the protective shield of ice to break down from warm air above and warm water below, which then causes warming and melting. The more exposed dark ocean water is to solar radiation, the less sunlight is reflected back into the atmosphere.
So, because of the icy components, the polar regions become the first two places in the world where the warming of the planet can be seen.Think about the penguins that I mentioned before.
Let’s talk about ASOC now. What are they doing?
ASOC stands for Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, and at its heart is the conservation and protection of Antarctica. We focus on environmental protection by working on conservation campaigns. For example, we work with international organizations to create ways to help the Antarctic Treaty System meet its mandates to conserve and protect Antarctica, the Southern Ocean and its wildlife. We also run different projects and workshops with the fishing industry and other NGOs so that they also understand the purpose of our work and become part of the solution.
One of our goals is to get the public involved and engaged on why it’s so important to protect this continent. We mainly do this using social media and through other campaign-related strategies like rallies for Antarctica in Berlin, Penguin Awareness Day, World Ocean Day and World Krill Day.
That’s beautiful work! We spoke about the problems that Antarctic wildlife is facing. What can we do to help?
Right now, what Antarctica really needs are marine protected areas. We need to make a mental shift in the way in which we see nature and ourselves. It requires a change in the way we think, live, and understand the world. We shouldn’t constantly take and exploit the natural world, it should be valued beyond an economic value. This can be a very complicated undertaking and we might not be able to directly help with this, but having compassion and care in one’s heart about the natural world already goes a long way.
Tourism is increasing in Antarctica, and it will increase even more. What is the impact of more tourism?
It’s true that tourism will increase, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We discuss the impact of tourism on the environment within ASOC and look for ways to make it better. For example, we look at the regulations and requirements that the vessels must abide by when they transit in Southern Ocean waters. But we also look at the impact of tourism on specific areas. For example, it was recently decided that certain areas of Antarctica won’t be visited anymore for a period of time so that populations of penguins can thrive again.
Tourism is not always bad, as it helps raise awareness about the beauty of Antarctica itself. However, in order to do it sustainably it is important for ASOC to keep a close watch on tourism practices. Do you want to learn more about ASOC and their efforts to protect Antarctica? Check out their website and socials on the links below!