Ice-free areas in Antarctica could expand by close to 25% by 2100 and drastically change the animal and plant life of the continent, research published Wednesday shows.
The new study also looks at the likely impact of man-made climate change on native Antarctic animal and plant species, including penguins, seals and sea birds.
The paper is the first to examine the impact of climate change on ice-free areas in Antarctica, which currently cover less than 1% of the continent, yet are home to about 99% of all Antarctic plants and animals.
In fact, scientists say we know more about the ice in and around Antarctica — including the dramatic imminent break of the Larsen C ice shelf — than we do about the animal and plant life that live there.
“Until now, Antarctic climate change research has focused mainly on ice sheets and the potential impact on global sea-level rise, while the effect of climate change on ice melt and native Antarctic biodiversity has been largely overlooked,” said study co-author Jasmine Lee of the Australian Antarctic Division.
In addition to well-known animal species such as penguins, the study also looked at the affects of climate change on small invertebrates, as well as fungi, lichen and moss, including plant species that are only found in Antarctica.
Overall, there will be winners and losers in Antarctica as the warming continues and the ice-free areas expand.
Winners could include some species of penguins, seabirds and seals, who might have extra space for breeding. In fact, the Gentoo penguins (which are only found in the Peninsula) are increasing in abundance and expanding their range as the climate becomes more mild and more suitable for them, Lee said.
“While this might provide new areas for native species to colonize, it could also result in the spread of invasive species, and in the long term, the extinction of less competitive native species,” warned study co-author Aleks Terauds, also of the Australian Antarctic Program.
While man-made climate change is one of the greatest threats to wildlife worldwide, animals and plants on the Antarctic Peninsula are particularly vulnerable since that region has seen one of the most rapid temperature increases in the Southern Hemisphere, the study said.
“Understanding the effect of expanding ice-free areas is essential if we are to fully understand the implications of climate change in Antarctica,” Terauds said.
The study was published in Nature, a peer-reviewed British journal.