Imagine this: an island in Antarctica so white for it was mostly covered with thick sheets of ice that no earthen colors are visible to the naked eye. Ten years after, this landscape has changed into something unfamiliar: people can now see “rocks that we weren’t seeing five or 10 years ago, and that is direct evidence of the shrinking of these glaciers and loss of mass,” stated the director of the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACH), Marcelo Leppe, to AFP.
“I had the opportunity to come here over a 15-year period, and even within a human’s lifetime, you can already see the changes brought about by climate change,” Leppe expresses. Among other regions, Antarctica has been one of those warming the fastest as evidenced by receding and melting glaciers. And Chile is just one of those twenty countries in Antarctica that have scientific research bases for climate change.
The country’s science complex found on King George Island, named “Professor Julio Escudero,” has researchers convened to measure the effects of climate change on the island’s native flora and fauna. “We need to quantify the change to predict what could happen in the near future,” Leppe explained.
While melting glaciers and increasing sea levels are the more obvious effects and evidence of climate change, there are also species showing in places where they were not initially found. These effects seen in Antarctica amidst climate change are bringing scientists to explore more solutions and possibilities to adapt to the warmer earth.
Booming of Algal Growth
On Doumer Island in Antarctica’s Palmer Archipelago, the water has increased by at least 1 degree Celsius – that is, from a normal range of 0 to 1.5 degrees Celsius to 2.5 degrees Celsius. These warming waters have invited some species that were previously inexistent in the Antarctic. These species include spider crab; also, green algae was observed to be flourishing in the region.
“Even though they’re really small, the algae and the micro-algae are really important for balance in the food chain. They supply nutrients to the rest of the ecosystem, and we know that the number of species in the same ecosystem is a very important factor in terms of it remaining in good health,” said Nelson Valdivia, a professor at Austral University of Chile.
However, this algal bloom could eventually disturb the ecological balance. The scientists are concerned about “losing species that we don’t even yet know exist,” Valdivia said.
With sea levels increasing by 0.35 millimeters yearly, the scientists are also concerned about what climate change’s effects on Antarctica can bring to the whole world. As the continent contains 62 percent of the earth’s freshwater, its melting and water expansion threaten both marine life and terrestrial life.
Exploring Changing Climate Adaptation
These climate change effects on flora and fauna in Antarctica are also taken advantage by researchers in studying how these creatures are able to adapt to warming temperatures. For instance, biotechnologists use Antarctic plants in formulating sunscreens, antioxidants, and natural sugars.
Another example is moss, which was found to survive temperature increases of 1 to 2 degrees Celsius by biotechnologist Marisol Pizarro from the University of Santiago. “We could transfer a gene linked to this tolerance for dry conditions to a common plant, such as lettuce or rice, to give that plant the ability to tolerate drought. As a result, it would be less affected by the adverse, unfavorable conditions due to diminished water in its environment,” she said.
Scientific explorations in Chile sum up to about a hundred projects also include genetic observations in penguins and comparison of indigenous mollusks with those found in South America.