6 ways humans are transforming Antarctica from a pristine preserve to a polluted wasteland

Baby Emperor Penguin sitting on its parents feet.
Emperor Penguin populations are at risk due to rapid ice melt.Education Images / Contributor / Getty Images
  • Human-driven climate change is causing Antarctica to transform before our eyes.

  • Coastlines are crumbling from rapid permafrost melt, and snow's turning black from carbon pollution.

  • Antarctica was once a pristine preserve, but humans are ruining it.

Last year, ice beds holding thousands of Emperor penguins melted and broke apart from beneath their feet. Scientists estimated up to 10,000 penguin chicks, too young to withstand the freezing waters, died as a result.

It's just one of many disturbing changes that humans and human-driven climate change are causing to happen on the frozen continent.

1. Wildlife is disappearing

Antarctica is home to more than 1,100 species of plants, animals, and microbes, but probably not for long. Researchers estimate that 65% of all its wildlife could cease to exist by the year 2100.

"Antarctica has been losing ice at an accelerating rate over the past few decades," Emma MacKie, assistant professor in geological sciences at the University of Florida, told Insider.

Antarctica Ice
Melting ice in Antarctica.AP/Natacha Pisarenko

Recent research found that the most intense heat wave ever recorded on Earth was in Antarctica last year. And this past winter, the frozen continent reached record-low sea ice levels.

"Entire marine ecosystems are affected by such changes in sea ice cover," Eric Rignot, a distinguished professor of Earth system science at the University of California, Irvine, told Insider.

What's more, "we have reason to believe that this ice loss trend will continue to worsen," MacKie said.

Data suggests that even if scientists try their best conservation strategies, they still won't be able to save 37% of life forms on the continent.

2. The ground is breaking apart

Permafrost is soil or ground that's been frozen for at least two or more years. It's typically found in polar and hilly regions and is part of what holds Antarctica together.

Human-driven climate change is causing Antarctica's permafrost to thaw rapidly, according to NASA.

When permafrost thaws it can destabilize the ground and, in the case of shorelines, cause giant chunks of the continent to fall off.

Permafrost thaw shows giant chunks of Earth falling into the ocean.
Beaufort Island is in Antarctica's Ross Sea. Permafrost melt is causing its shorelines to crumble.USGS

"This region is nearing a threshold of rapid landscape change," researchers noted in 2017. These changes are making the sea bed thinner and more mobile, they said.

3. Antarctica's pristine white snow is turning black

Antarctica's once-white snow is turning black in regions where humans stay. The reason is black carbon.

Black carbon is the dark, dirty, dusty pollution that forms from burning fossil fuels. Not only is it filthy, it also absorbs more heat, causing the snow and ice around it to melt faster.

A cliff face with melting ice in Antarctica.
Antarctica saw temperatures 39 degrees Celsius above average last year.Pauline Askin/Reuters

And depending on the location, that ice melt could turn up some pretty nasty stuff.

During the 1950s, there was a lack of proper waste management protocol. So researchers often buried waste in the ground, as a permanent frozen dumpster — except it's no longer frozen.

"Everything from fuel to batteries to dead huskies — that's already starting to melt and there's this concern about what to do to clean those up," Sharon Robinson, a climate change biologist at the University of Wollongong in Australia, told ABC News in 2020.

4. Human encroachment threatens biodiversity

Human activities and structures can be found over 22,500 square miles across Antarctica, according to a 2019 study.

What's even more worrisome is that "human impacts are disproportionately concentrated on the most environmentally significant areas of Antarctica," the researchers noted.

Tourists on Wolf's Fang Runway in Antarctica.
Tourists on Wolf's Fang Runway in Antarctica.White Desert

A report from the University of Colorado Boulder suggested that the Western Antarctic Peninsula, a major biodiversity hotspot in Antarctica, is under threat because of infrastructure development, tourism, and other human activities.

The region has great ecological importance as it provides unique habitats for various species of lichens, mosses, plants, microbes, and animals.

Many experts argue that there is an urgent need to expand Antarctica's network of specially protected areas as this is the only way to prevent human encroachment.

5. Overfishing krill is reducing humpback whale populations

Fishing vessels alone hunted over 450,000 metric tons of krill in 2020, and experts suggest that this number is expected to increase further because of rising demand for krill oil-based supplements.

Humpback Whale
Humpback whales were removed from the endangered species list in 2022.Auscape/Getty Images

Antarctic krill is a keystone species, meaning that the survival of many other species depends on them. One study found that a decrease in krill population results in reduced humpback whale pregnancies.

"Continued warming and increased fishing along the Western Antarctic Peninsula, which continue to reduce krill stocks, will likely impact this humpback whale population and other krill predators in the region," Logan Pallin, a postdoctoral researcher at University of California, Santa Cruz, said in a press release about the study.

Krill is also the primary food source for seals, penguins, and many species of seabirds in Antarctica.

6. Boats bring invasive species that are changing Antarctica's landscape

In 2018, researchers from the British Atlantic Survey reported the invasive flowering grass species Poa annua at multiple locations in the Antarctic Peninsula.

Two years later, another team of researchers identified 13 invasive species on the continent that could negatively affect the native biodiversity.

Picture of a yellow dandelion that's invasive to Antarctica.
Invasive dandelions seen on South Georgia Island, sub-Antarctica.Wolfgang Kaehler / Contributor / Getty Images

"Although Antarctica is quite far away for most people in the world, the continent and the surrounding ocean area have a very significant impact on global processes related to both the atmosphere and the ocean," Deneb Karentz, a marine biologist at the University of San Francisco, told Insider.

Changes in Antarctica's ecosystem are likely to cause a rise in sea levels, alter weather patterns, and trigger extreme events such as tsunamis that could adversely affect millions of people across the globe.

"The future of Antarctica is totally relevant to the future of humanity," Rignot said.

Read the original article on Business Insider