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Warming Seas Endanger Antarctic Ecosystem, And Billion-Dollar Fishing Industry

Natacha Pisarenko
German scientist Andreas Beck takes notes in Robert Island, in the South Shetland Islands archipelago, Antarctica.

A few small islands off the coast of Antarctica are the incubator for nearly all the marine life around the world’s southernmost continent. That’s according to new research from Yale and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The same researchers also believe that climate change on those islands could have a devastating domino effect.

The first time Yale biologist Thomas Near visited the islands of the Scotia Arc, he said it was unlike any other place he’d seen on earth.

“It’s a very stark landscape. The islands just appear to rise out of the ocean. ”

He says you’d never guess these islands are the cradle of life in the world’s most extreme habitat. It’s the home of fish like the Chilean sea bass, popular on plates. Millions of years ago, Antarctica was a pretty warm place. But then it got cold. Massive ice sheets and glaciers crept in from the south and took over the coast.

“The near shore areas around the continent are a really hard place to live. If you are an Antarctic fish living along the shores of the Antarctic continent, these communities have continually been disrupted by these advancing ice sheets.”

The islands stayed ice sheet-free. They served as an incubator for the fish and other marine life who spread throughout the continent. But Near says the new threat isn’t ice sheets. It’s warming seas, which put fish at risk and attract new predators to the region. Near’s research shows these islands give the Antarctic life, and without them, the whole region’s ecosystem is in danger.

“This pattern where the islands are the hot spot of biodiversity origination means the biodiversity of the Antarctic is much in peril by potential dangers of climate change.”

It’s not just Antarctica that’s in trouble. Fishing in the Southern Ocean is a billion-dollar industry, and those fish feed bigger animals like whales and penguins. So Near says the health of Antarctica’s ecosystem is kind of like a barometer for the health of our planet.

Davis Dunavin loves telling stories, whether on the radio or around the campfire. He started in Missouri and ended up in Connecticut, which, he'd like to point out, is the same geographic trajectory taken by Mark Twain.