More than 280 women in STEMM who have participated in the Homeward Bound initiative are co-signatories on a piece that outlines the threats to the Antarctic Peninsula and provides methods to counter them.
The piece was authored by Dr. Carolyn Hogg of the University of Sydney School of Life and Environmental Sciences, who was part of the largest ever all-female expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula, with the women in STEMM initiative, Homeward Bound, in late 2019. Homeward Bound is a global initiative that looks to elevate the voices of women in science, technology, engineering mathematics and medicine in leading for positive outcomes for our planet.
“Now, more than ever, a broad range of perspectives is essential in global decision-making, if we are to mitigate the many threats our planet faces,” said Dr. Hogg. “Solutions include the ratification of a Marine Protected Area around the Peninsula, set to be discussed on 19 October, at a meeting of a group of governments that collectively manage the Southern Ocean’s resources. The region is impacted by a number of threats, each potentially problematic in their own right, but cumulated together they will be catastrophic.”
The Western Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly heating places on Earth – temperatures reached a record 20.75°C in February 2020. It is home to threatened chinstrap, Adélie and gentoo penguin colonies, leopard seals, killer, humpback and minke whales, seabirds and krill – the bedrock of the Antarctic food chain.
Cumulative threats from a variety of human activities such as commercial fishing, research activities and tourism combined with climate change is exacerbating this imbalance, and a tipping point is fast approaching.
Tourist numbers have more than doubled in the past decade, with 74,000 visiting last year compared to 33,000 in 2009. Additionally, the Antarctic Peninsula hosts science facilities belonging to 18 nations – the highest concentration on the continent. New stations and expansions are ever-present.
“Ships can pollute the ocean with micro-plastics, oils and ship noise,” said Dr. Justine Shaw, another co-author from the University of Queensland. “An increasing number of vessels that are not IAATO members and that carry up to about 500 passengers have begun visiting the region, and this is concerning as it adds greater pressure.”
The sea ice covering is becoming ever-smaller areas and is melting more rapidly due to global heating, and as a result, the key habitat of numerous species has decreased. The ecosystem’s delicate balance is tilted, leaving many if not most species in danger of extinction. If carbon emissions keep climbing, within 50 years the area of sea ice will almost halve, and the volume of ice-shelves will decrease by one quarter
“Even relatively small krill catches can be harmful if they occur in a particular region, at a sensitive time for the species that live there,” said Dr. Cassandra Brooks of the University of Colorado, a co-author on Dr Hogg’s piece. “For example, fishing when penguins are breeding lowers their food intake, and affects their subsequent breeding success. A Marine Protected Area will conserve and protect this unique ecosystem and its wildlife, and we need to implement it now.”
There are three core measures critical to protecting the Peninsula, as outlined in the piece. First, is the proposed MPA for the western Antarctic Peninsula, led by Chile and Argentina. This will be discussed in the two-week meeting of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) which commenced on October 19. The MPA would minimise commercial fishing in ecologically sensitive areas, which would help to preserve the delicate food chain and ensure greater sustainability for the future in surrounding areas.
The second is to protect more land areas in Antarctica. “Globally, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity have agreed that 17% of land should be protected to ensure conservation of biodiversity,” said Dr. Hogg. “This is a good starting point for Antarctica.” Currently, just 1.5% of Antarctica’s ice-free terrain has formal protected status.
The third is to implement more collaborative and integrative conservation efforts. “The Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP) must work to limit the expansion of research infrastructure,” explained Dr. Shaw. “Tour operators’ body IAATO and parties to the Antarctic Treaty System should cooperate to better manage tourist activity—ensuring all tour operators abide by IAATO regulations regardless of whether they are IAATO members.”
Women are noticeably absent in Antarctica’s human history, which is steeped in tales of male heroism. Female scientists are still a minority in the region’s research stations. Finding long-term and effective solutions for the effects global heating depends on examining these issues from numerous different perspectives.
To read Dr Hogg’s piece, “Protect the Antarctic Peninsula — before it’s too late”, click here.
Photography by Will Rogan.
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