Earth – the only habitable planet known to mankind so far, has been sustaining all life on it through a ‘free ecosystem facility’, fulfilling our need for air, water, natural food, fibre and shelter, selflessly. Comprised of diverse ecosystems that demonstrate a delicate balance between each component viz: atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere – the earth systems are delicately balanced on each other. ‘Man’ on the other hand has played havoc – indiscriminately burning fossil fuels, cutting forests, polluting water sources, excavating for mining and emitting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other poisonous gases into atmosphere accelerating the process of warming and creating holes in the safety curtain provided by nature in the atmosphere. While appreciating the need for development, it is argued by environmentalists that the Earth has physical and biological limits and it is of utmost importance that these limits are honoured.
The Earth’s environment is required to be shielded from hazardous anthropogenic interference, maintaining a balance between utilisation of natural resources and preservation of the earth system. From the onset of industrialisation there has been an exacerbating pressure on the land and resources of the earth. The continued pace of development, keeping in mind the aspirations and needs of developing states, has left very few areas in the world free of human interference.
The Polar Regions – Arctic and the Antarctic are two such areas of earth that may be defined as remnants of paradises crying out for sustenance and preservation of their unique environment. Although inaccessibility, harsh and hostile climate of the Polar Regions has ensured maintenance of their pristine nature in the past, technologic advancements have today made entry to these lands easy thereby diluting the barrier of inaccessibility and throwing the pristine area open to anyone who has resources to pay for the travel. Environmentalists fear a threat to these areas due to increased anthropogenic activities added by the global phenomenon of changing climatic patterns.
Whole of Antarctic, the cold oceans surrounding it and the greater parts of Arctic are often conceptualised as the ‘common heritage of mankind’ – most enchanting, picturesque and pristine – sustaining the complex ocean-atmosphere coupled system of our planet and thereby ensuring the sustenance of life itself. As outlined in the paper by J C Bergengren et al. 2011 titled Ecological sensitivity: a biospheric view of climate change, published in the journal Climatic Change, model projection on reaction of plant and animal species over next three centuries to the earth’s increasing temperatures point towards an increasing ecological change and stress on the biosphere resulting in disruption in the ecological balance between interdependent and endangered plant and animal species. This would adversely affect earth’s water, energy, carbon and other cycles. Temperatures projected to rise by 2 degrees by 2100 is too rapid for biospecies to adapt to a newer environment.
A warming of 2.5OC observed in the Antarctic Peninsula over the last 40 years has been the largest surface warming on the planet. In response, nearly 90 per cent of the glaciers are in retreat, and there has been a succession of ice shelf disintegrations. The key reason for the latter appears to be surface melting, which causes water to pour down through cracks and damage the structural integrity of the ice shelf, leaving it vulnerable to collapse. The ice shelves are generally several hundred metres thick at the ice front, where they terminate. The disintegration of these ice shelves will spell doom for the ice sheet as it will result in rapid movement downwards. Data from National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) shows that breaking away of parts of Larsen ‘B’ Ice Shelf in the Antarctic Peninsula in 2002 was followed in 2008 by the loss of parts of Wilkins Ice shelf. Studies by E Rignot (2004, 06 and 08) and other co-workers, published in the Geophysical Research Letters, have cautioned that warm oceans are eroding West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Antarctic Peninsula and West Antarctic are warming at a faster rate than the most of East Antarctic. It has been predicted by them that main parts of Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctic may be afloat in Amundsen Sea within next hundred years, which will have drastic impact on the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Studies by Indian scientists on the nitrate record of the ice cores drilled from Antarctic, have revealed synchronous changes with records of solar activity, showing relatively enhanced nitrate concentration during periods of reduced solar activity like the Dalton Minimum (~1790-1830 AD) and Maunder Minimum (~1640-1710 AD). These studies suggest that the nitrate concentrations in Antarctic ice cores appear to be influenced by production rates and processes in the atmosphere, as well as the temperature at the site of precipitation (Thamban et al, 2011, High resolution climate reconstruction of recent warming using instrumental and ice core records from coastal Antarctic; Mausam, New Delhi). The oxygen isotope (O) records from the core revealed a significant warming trend of 2.7°C for the past 470 years, with an enhanced warming during the last several decades (ibid.). A significant warming of 1°C during 1905-2005 is revealed in the surface air temperature estimated using the O record, confirming that coastal Dronning Maud Land region of East Antarctic is probably the only region showing significant warming trend of 0.1°C per decade (ibid). The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007 too has remarked that warming of the climate system is unequivocal as global average air and ocean temperatures are on rise.
The anthropogenic activity that includes visits of tourists to Antarctic as also scientific activity across the continent has increased manifold in last two decades or so. The data presented by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) in the Antarctic Treaty meetings indicate that number of tourists to Antarctic increased from about 5000 in 1991 to more than 10,000 in 1997-98 and by 2008 reached an alarming figure of about 45,000 in 2008-09. Though the number declined to 33,500 in 2010-11 due to financial crises worldwide, the numbers are likely to go up again as global economy is showing signs of improvement.
Another study conducted by experts from Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programmes, (COMNAP) has revealed that number of vascular plant seeds, bryophytes and lichens of alien/non native species are introduced by tourists and scientists in Antarctic, unintentionally, through clothing and other material brought along with them. Biologists have also expressed fears that some of the varieties of grass introduced in Antarctic Peninsula have come to stay, as it has adapted to the present climatic regime.
Such and other concerns have necessitated development of special strategies by Treaty nations (countries signatory to the Antarctic Treaty) under a project named as Antarctic Conservation Strategy. A range of activities have been initiated towards this objective which include workshops, discussion groups, consultation with experts to learn best practices elsewhere and data analysis, integration of the widely distributed information and management strategies conservation etc. For example a workshop entitled: ‘Antarctic Conservation in the 21st Century’, 2012 supported by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), was held to discuss ways to achieve a better understanding of global conservation challenges.
The primary goal is to identify the key areas in Antarctic that represent some intrinsic value in terms of science, environment or even of social or historical significance that require preservation/conservation. There are already several areas demarcated as Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMA) or as Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPA) that have been given a special status, which includes areas of Larsemann Hills (site of Indian station Bharati) and the Dakshin Gangotri Glacier in Schirmacher Oasis, respectively. Also, the site of first Indian Antarctic station Dakshin Gangotri (buried in ice) and that of Humboldt Camp where four members of an Indian Expedition lost their lives, are designated as ‘historical sites’.
The frozen oceans all around Antarctic are equally unique in terms of biodiversity and ice-ocean interaction. Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) is already moving ahead for designating many critical areas as ‘Marine Protected Areas’ (MPA). Nearly 33 per cent area of the Southern Ocean area is proposed to be covered under the protected areas to help conserve its ecological values. Ross Sea, with its unique environmental values is high on the list.
The Ross Sea is a horseshoe embayment in the Antarctic landmass, located south of New Zealand. It was the seat of action right from 1841 when it was discovered by James Clark Ross during 1901-1904, and was chosen for Scott’s as well as Shackleton’s first expedition in 1907-1909 – also the starting point for the race to South Pole in 1911-12. An area of astounding natural beauty and unique biodiversity, the entire Ross Sea is soon to be designated as a MPA. The Antarctic Ocean Alliance (AOA), a coalition of leading environmental and conservation organisations lists several biodiversity figures as points in favour of declaring it as a marine reserve, which reveal that the area supports:
■ 38 per cent of Adelie penguin and 26 per cent Emperor penguin population of world
■ 30 per cent of the world population of Antarctic petrels
■ 50 per cent of the world’s Ross Sea killer whales,
■ 45 per cent of the Southern Pacific population of Weddell seals, and,
■ 6 per cent of the world population of Antarctic Minke whales.
The AOA has also identified 19 circumpolar areas for consideration as marine reserves from the point of view of climate change and resource preservation. If acted upon, this would establish world’s largest network of MPAs with an aim to protect the rare Southern Ocean habitat and preserve it as a legacy for future generations.
A well researched report published in the June 2012 issue of ‘The Economist’, drawing its conclusions from the work of climate experts world over, confirms that Arctic is warming at a much faster rate than the rest of the world. The study of satellite data since 1978 presented in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007, has shown that Arctic sea-ice has decreased dramatically in the last 50 years – by 2.1 to 3.3 per cent per decade with a steep decrease in summers (5.0 to 9.8 per cent) per decade. The Arctic sea ice fluctuation reaches its annual minimum in September each year while it is at its maximum in winters. At 10.97 million sq km in June 2012, the sea ice cover was nearly 10 per cent below average. The depleting sea ice cover exposes sea water directly to sun which absorbs the heat that otherwise would have been reflected by the ice. This albedo effect is supported by the observations that the greatest rise in Arctic temperatures takes place in autumn, when the sea ice is at its minimum. The loss of ice in Greenland is estimated around 200 Gt per year which is nearly a four time increase from a decade before. It had been predicted by most Arctic climate models that Arctic will be free of ice in summers by the end of present century but recent studies published by climate specialists in Geophysical Research Letters have indicated that this might happen as early as 2037.
Several environmental changes are likely to take place with the loss of the Arctic Sea cover – changes in Arctic coastlines, extinction of highly specialised Arctic species and introduction of new species apart from the influence of this change on the climate of tropics. Results of a study by scientists of USA, Norway and Russia (K R Bjorklund et al. 2012, Modern incursions of radiolaria into the Arctic Ocean, Journal of Micropalaeontology, UK) have reported that out of 145 taxa spotted about midway between North Pole and European mainland, 98 came from much farther south – some as far as from the tropics. Radiolarian species of equatorial region have been found living in Arctic Ocean in 2010. These radiolarians were of different size and had reproduced under the harsh conditions of Arctic waters indicating that marine non native species are moving into deeper and cooler environments in response to warming of the oceans.
Though melting of sea ice cover in the Arctic will open new sea routes and make available new areas for energy resource exploration, the environmental damages will outnumber the commercial gains.