Environment Opinion

Polar regions in peril without government action

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Global warming has caused the death of thousands of Antarctic penguins, with scientists saying this is just the beginning (Image via Pxfuel)

What will it take to get any government to recognise and take substantive action on climate change and biodiversity loss?

The two poles are melting, with unknown consequences for the planet.  

The latest disasters include the deaths of around 10,000 emperor penguin chicks in Antarctica. Too young to survive in the ice water, media reports indicate the chicks drowned or froze to death as the ice bed on which they lived broke apart.

Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey say the penguin wipe-out is a harbinger of things to come.

More than 90% of emperor penguins are predicted to be extinct by the end of this century. Humpback whales are also most at risk.

Antarctica is warming, the sea ice is disappearing. Catastrophic losses of Antarctic species are predicted as the marine ecosystem trophic layers are impacted by increasingly warm sea water temperatures. The Southern Ocean circling Antarctica is one of the Earth’s richest marine ecosystems.  

The Southern Ocean has important fauna, it’s home to 99% of southern polar species and is the only place on Earth left where all the established fauna are native.

Whales, penguins and seals feed on krill. These tiny crustacea estimated at 500 million tonnes under-pin the Southern Ocean food web.

A scientific review in 2019 detailed how krill is able to fertilise oceans and help store carbon. In 2020, University of Tasmania scientists said ocean warming is ‘likely to alter the distribution of and lifecycle of krill’.

Huge fishing vessels compete for krill against humpback whales for the prey.

According to a UNSW study this year, the deep ocean circulation that forms around Antarctica could be headed for collapse:

‘Such a decline would stagnate the bottom of the oceans and affect climate change and marine ecosystems for centuries to come.’

The upwelling near Antarctica carries heat, carbon, oxygen and nutrients around the globe influencing climate, sea level and marine ecosystem productivity.

At the north pole, the escalating disappearance of sea ice has caused major impacts. Since 2019, 500 gray whales have been stranded with experts reckoning many thousands likely died and sank to the ocean floor. 

Many have died from starvation. Sighting a skinny whale over the last three seasons has been a common occurrence. Major drops in calf numbers have been a feature of these seasons.

Sea ice loss has been massive. In 2017, the ice was about 1,994,290 square kilometres less than average. Since then, sea ice has continued to dramatically decline.

Gray whales feed on benthic organisms which in turn are susceptible to warm waters, creating a significant downturn in foraging areas. In a normal season, sea ice algae blooms feed these organisms on the sea floor.

U.S. expert Jackie Grebmeier describes the whales’ plight:

“The gray whale’s plate is smaller. Instead of being a dinner plate of food, now it’s like a salad plate which suggests that the ecosystem is transforming with the potential to fundamentally reconfigure the Pacific Arctic marine food web.”

As heatwaves hit Europe, the U.S. and other countries, ocean temperatures warmed to unbelievable levels. The ramifications of these massive increases were addressed in a recent powerful speech by U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat, Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. A speech that should be compulsory viewing for every politician.

Senator Whitehouse explained:

One joule is our standard unit of heat energy. A zettajoule is a number with 21 zeroes behind it, a massive number.


In 2019, more than nine zettajoules of heat energy were added to the ocean annually. Since then, oceans are now absorbing over 14 zettajoules of excess heat into the ocean every year.


The total energy of all human kind amounts to about one half of a zettajoule of energy per year. For the fossil fuel component of that one half of a zettajoule of energy we pay the price of l4 added zettajoules of heat energy into the ocean every year.


We load into our Earth’s oceans annually nearly 30 times the entire energy use of the entire species of the entire planet.  


Another comparison. Last year, the ocean absorbed the equivalent of seven Hiroshima nuclear bombs detonated every second in the ocean. That’s every second of every day for the entire year the equivalent of seven nuclear detonations worth of heat into our oceans.  


One major consequence of hotter oceans is increasing hurricanes. In June, the sea surface temperature in the north Atlantic was the hottest in 170 years. Nine degrees Farenheit above normal. It has been described as an extreme oceanic heatwave. Certain parts of the ocean are reaching a rare designation called beyond extreme.


With seawater temperatures reaching 101 degrees Farenheit, this is the recommended temperature for hot tubs.

According to Australian ocean experts, Australia’s south-east could be in for a marine heatwave that is literally off the scale, raising the prospect of significant losses in fishing and aquaculture.

The Guardian reports that in 2016, south-eastern Australia suffered its longest-ever marine heatwave which ran for about 250 days with profound effects on marine life. Tasmania’s giant kelp species has already lost 95% of its historical range.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) scientists report solid anecdotal evidence that the mix of marine life had changed in south-eastern waters with increases in some species and decreases in others.

Dr Kimberley Reid, a climate scientist with Monash University says a 1.5 degree warming means the Great Barrier Reef probably won’t survive this century. 

Australia’s marine ecosystem is the world’s third-largest marine jurisdiction. It has some of the world’s largest coral and rocky reef systems, 12% of the world’s blue carbon ecosystems, the third largest area of mangroves globally and 50% of the world’s seagrass species.

The Federal Government’s climate policy reports Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is on a 17-nation High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, with a focus on world transition to a sustainable ocean economy where jobs are secured, ocean health is protected and prosperity is shared equally.

A totally unrealistic response to a global crisis that has no apparent solutions other than an urgent need to end fossil fuels. Tanya Plibersek, Minister for Environment, has approved three new coal mines since May.

A UN report says there’s a 98% chance one of the next five years will be the hottest ever.

Sue Arnold is an IA columnist and freelance investigative journalist. You can follow Sue on Twitter @koalacrisis.

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