The vast white landscapes with never ending ice lands is probably the picture we imagine for Antarctica, but “thanks” to global warming that majority of these amazing gigantic glaciers are now thawing. And interestingly most Antarctic plants and animals live in the permanently ice-free areas that cover about 1% of the continent. So who wins and who loses because of the great Antarctic thaw?
Everyone’s favourite Emperor and Adélie penguins aren’t just the Antarctic beings, terrestrial Antarctic species also include beautiful mosses, lichens, two types of flowering plants, and a suite of hardy invertebrates such as nematodes, springtails, rotifers and tardigrades, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. And Antarctica’s native species are facing invasion as climate change dramatically expands the continent’s ice-free zones. There are these tiny creatures sometimes nicknamed “waterbears” – the Tardigrades who are so tough that they can even survive in space! They will survive, but there are other animals like the polar bears, the penguins, the seals whose homes will be shrunken down to 1/3rd of its area.
There are winners of the Antarctic thaw too, as the ice-free areas expand, the distances between them will decrease, giving plants and animals more opportunity to spread through the landscape. This will definitely provide new opportunities for some native plants and animals to expand their range and colonise new areas. Antarctic mosses are expected to grow faster as temperatures rise, and Antarctica’s two flowering plant species are already expanding southward. But if the newcomers to a particular area outcompete the native species, then it may lead to localised extinctions. Over the coming centuries this could lead to the loss of many plants and animals, and the homogenisation of Antarctica’s ecosystems.
And human beings are the key transporters of non-native transporters, we carry non-native seeds, microbes and insects through bags, shoes, clothes and field equipment which then become habitats and grow in the land of Antarctica. So bio-security and monitoring for invasive species is the key to saving the icy kingdom.