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A Weddell Seal

Keeping the Antarctic cool

Thom Yorke released a new song called Hands Off The Antarctic set to video sequences filmed during a Greenpeace operation…

by Alessandra Pierro
07 February 2019
7 min read
by Alessandra Pierro
07 February 2019
7 min read

The ultimate goal of this Greenpeace initiative is to create the world’s largest protected zone in the Weddell Sea, which is five times the size of Germany and home to penguins, seals, whales and other indigenous animals now at risk of extinction. One such species is krill, a small crustacean that plays a crucial role in the food chain in the Antarctic, but is in high demand from industry for the production of food supplements and animal feed, making it highly sought after by fishermen.


Protecting the Antarctic Ocean is absolutely crucial, as it is home to three quarters of the nutritional substances that support the conservation of the world’s marine environment. As a result, Greenpeace’s proposal attracted nearly two million signatures and is due to be discussed in the coming days by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources when it meets in Tasmania.

Recently, we are seeing a proliferation of initiatives like Greenpeace’s to protect the Antarctic from the impact of human beings. Even so, despite growing activism, the Antarctic and its role in the ecosystem still remain largely unknown.

South of the 60th parallel

It is telling that, until quite recently, we had more information on Mars than on the so-called South Pole. Essentially a young continent, having only been discovered in the 19th century, the Antarctic has remained an almost unfathomable place, where fact and fiction have become intertwined.

Today there is no denying that the Antarctic has become the new scientific frontier – a kind of permanent watch post that is at the heart of global debate over energy resources and climate change. In this sense, the Antarctic belongs to everyone and no one: it has no national sovereignty and plays host to an international scientific community that operates according to the 1961 Antarctic Treaty. The accumulated knowledge on this remote continent – formerly the preserve of sailors and explorers – is now in the hands of scientists and researchers coordinated by SCAR, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

But rather than lingering over the romantic allure of the Antarctic, these new pioneers are breaking it down into a series of chemical and physical elements so as to observe processes that are critical for the future of our planet. In fact, Antarctic ice and water contain traces that not only provide clues as to the origin of the universe, but can also be used to analyse the current health of the planet and make forecasts about the future.While the Antarctic lends itself to a broad range of research, it is also the least stable place on Earth and the rapid changes of recent times are becoming more and more concerning in terms of their biological, environmental and even social impact on the rest of the planet. Indeed, some say that the Antarctic can act as a massive natural laboratory for future research and that it is also the most interesting and least explored continent on Earth.”

Changes in the Antarctic ecosystem

The Antarctic contains around 90% of the world’s ice reserves and plays a key role in the planet’s temperature. The cycle that keeps the surface temperature of the Earth constant and stops overheating starts, in fact, right here. When land ice melts, the resulting fresh water penetrates the salt water of the sea, gradually altering the ocean’s themohaline circulation.

When the salt concentration falls, water masses become lighter and therefore cannot descend to cool down the ocean floor. In turn, the waters that have absorbed excess heat in temperate areas of the planet are blocked from flowing into polar areas and, as a result, the thermal compensation process is compromised.

Between 1992 and 2017, the Antarctic lost nearly three thousand billion tonnes of ice, resulting in a roughly 8 mm rise in sea levels. It is estimated that if the Antarctic ice sheet were to melt completely, the sea level could rise by nearly 60 m.

The Antarctic Sea also absorbs 40% of the CO2 generated by human activities, despite being located so far from our sources of emissions. However, warmer waters and lower salinity are significantly reducing this absorption capacity. This major disruption threatens to upset a delicate balance, even more so if we take into account that the impact of the carbon dioxide is so pronounced that it contributed to the end of the last ice age, 20,000 years ago.

An uncertain future, a point of no return?

Human activities have a major impact on the equilibrium of the Antarctic: using a computer, turning on an air conditioner or sitting in traffic all have an effect, even from thousands of miles away. It is shocking just how much CO2 we can generate through our seemingly innocuous daily activities.


The drying up of water reserves threatens crops, livestock and aquatic species, which will obviously have significant repercussions on our food chain. And of course the first to pay the price will be developing countries.

If that were not enough, the climate refugees crisis is becoming more and more alarming. More than due to erosion and storms caused by rising sea levels. This figure could rise significantly, as many coastal communities are migrating away from the sea as a preventive measure.

It is said that when travelling to the Antarctic, halfway through the flight you reach the ‘Point of No Return’, where pilots have to weigh up whether conditions are good enough to land or whether to return to base. Many people are now wondering if, when it comes to safeguarding the future of our planet, this point of no return has not already been passed and if it is still possible to save it. Bearing this doubt in mind, we have now got to start thinking about ways to reduce the effects of what is happening to our world.


A question of perception

Preventive measures, technological innovation and government policies – as desirable as they are – are not enough to make a comprehensive difference. The time has come for each person to take individual responsibility. And to truly understand the scale of the problem, we need to reflect on our perception of it.

As the explanation for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize 2007 to Al Gore and the IPCC said: “Extensive climate changes may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind. They may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth’s resources […]. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars.”

We’d better make a start as soon as possible. Everything is at stake.


The author: Alessandra Pierro

Graduated in philosophy, copyeditor and content curator.