Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), Antarctica © Christine Flareau

Adelie penguin (Pygoscelis adeliae), Antarctica © Christine Flareau

Responding to the climate crisis in Antarctica

03 Oct 2019

  • krill
  • antarctica
  • climate change
  • marine protected areas

By Chris Johnson
Senior Manager, WWF Antarctic Program.

With the annual CCAMLR meeting just around the corner, our WWF Antarctic Program Senior Manager, Chris Johnson, speaks of the importance of this unique wilderness and what is at stake if we don’t secure action now.

One of the most dramatic consequences of the current climate crisis is accelerating changes in the oceans and cryosphere – also known as the Earth's snow and ice-covered places.

The Earth is losing its cryosphere and the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctica are ground zero for the planet’s climate crisis. While the world discusses whether to limit global mean temperature rise to 1.5 or 2 degrees, the Arctic and parts of Antarctica are already living with a 2 degree Celsius reality. Disappearing sea ice and glaciers means the polar regions have become profoundly different from what we imagine. And all that melting means massive changes for the rest of the world too, with huge societal implications.

For example, the rapid ice loss from glaciers and the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets this century is contributing to global sea level rise in unprecedented ways and could lead to hundreds of millions of people losing their homes.

The oceans and cryosphere have a critical role to play in limiting global warming. The frozen polar regions regulate Earth’s temperature by reflecting heat from the sun. Loss of snow and ice exposes darker substrates, which absorb more heat and accelerates climate change. The oceans absorb excess heat from the atmosphere which slows global warming but leads to warmer waters. The oceans also absorb excess carbon dioxide - around a quarter of emissions from human activities in the last forty years - and become more acidic. These human-induced changes are fundamentally altering marine ecosystems. All people on Earth depend directly or indirectly on the oceans and cryosphere.

Antarctica may seem remote but its marine ecosystems are undergoing a rapid, unprecedented transformation. Projected warming, ocean acidification, reduced seasonal sea ice extent and continued loss of multi-year sea ice, directly and indirectly, affect wildlife habitats and populations. For instance, ice-dependent polar species such as Antarctica’s iconic penguins, whales and krill are threatened as their sea ice habitat is disappearing.

A new UN Special Report on the Oceans and Cryosphere from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC SROCC) makes it clear that changes will continue and be irreversible even if the climate stabilises. The report makes it clear that we are at a critical crossroads – and we have tough choices to make. As governments around the world are making commitments to fight climate change at home – these are now more urgent than ever. Delaying climate action will lead to increased global warming and associated climate impacts. We can still save some of our cryosphere, but we must act now. It’s time to fight back at home and ‘on the ground’ to protect our largest wilderness on the planet – Antarctica.

For over 30 years, the WWF has been working to safeguard a thriving, wild Antarctica for future generations. Antarctic ocean life is conserved through coordinated international management by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), which can make binding consensus decisions about conservation and is both proactive and responsive in managing fisheries, taking a highly precautionary approach to limiting the impacts to the ecosystem.

The annual CCAMLR meeting runs for two weeks in Hobart, Australia from 21 October 1 November, 2019. CCAMLR is a crucial meeting where 25 counties including the EU come together to manage activities in the Southern Ocean – which are 10% of our global oceans. This year, nations will come together for the first international policy meeting that can respond to the climate crisis.

The IPCC SROCC report emphasises that nature is part of the solution to help fight the climate crisis. WWF is working globally to tackle climate change and create networks of protected areas in the polar regions that sustain biodiversity by providing space for nature to adapt and limit risks to human livelihoods and well-being.

In Antarctica, the good news is that CCAMLR has already committed to implementing an innovative network of marine protected areas (MPAs) around the continent. WWF advocates for a comprehensive system of MPAs including no-take marine reserves in the oceans around Antarctica protecting all major habitats and ecosystems, building a safety net for nature that will have benefits for people. WWF recommends protecting 30% by 2030.

However, there has been slow progress in delivering these major commitments. And, CCAMLR does not include climate change information in their precautionary, ecosystem-based management approach towards fisheries. The opportunity to transformational change is now.


Antarctica is a special place on the planet – where we have set aside political differences in the past creating it as a reserve for ‘peace and science’. The science is clear where climate change is threatening the stability of marine ecosystems and solutions like MPAs can make a difference. We have three proposed marine protected areas in East Antarctica, the Antarctic Peninsula and the Weddell Sea that will be under consideration by CCAMLR. These regions are vital to providing space for nature to adapt to climate change. 2019 is a critical year for the future of the Antarctic and now is the time to make the right decisions for the good of our future generations.

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