Antarctica will "almost certainly" witness more common and more severe extreme events, such as ocean heatwaves and ice loss, having global implications, researchers say.
Recent extremes may just be the tip of the iceberg, the UK scientists warned after reviewing evidence of extreme events in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, or the southern waters surrounding Antarctica.
Antarctica's fragile environments "may well be subject to considerable stress and damage in future years and decades," the authors wrote in the study published in the journal Frontiers in Environmental Science.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to net zero is our best hope of preserving Antarctica, they said.
The researchers examined recent extremes to evaluate Antarctica's vulnerability to a range of extreme events.
Some of these extremes were the world's largest recorded heatwave (38.5 degrees Celsius more than the average) that occurred in East Antarctica in 2022 and the lowest-on-record winter sea ice formation of the present, they said.
"Our results show that while extreme events are known to impact the globe through heavy rainfall and flooding, heatwaves and wildfires, such as those seen in Europe this summer, they also impact the remote polar regions," said co-author Anna Hogg, from the University of Leeds, UK.
The rapid changes now happening in Antarctica could place many countries in breach of an international treaty, the researchers said.
"Signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, including the UK, USA, India and China, pledge to preserve the environment of this remote and fragile place," said Martin Siegert, from the University of Exeter, UK.
"Nations must understand that by continuing to explore, extract and burn fossil fuels anywhere in the world, the environment of Antarctica will become ever more affected in ways inconsistent with their pledge," said Siegert.
Extreme events can also affect biodiversity. High temperatures have been linked to years with lower krill numbers, leading to breeding failures of krill-reliant predators - evidenced by many dead fur seal pups on beaches, the researchers said.
"Antarctic glaciers, sea ice and natural ecosystems are all impacted by extreme events. Therefore, it is essential that international treaties and policy are implemented in order to protect these beautiful but delicate regions," said Hogg.
"There are deep interconnections between extreme events in different aspects of the Antarctic physical and biological system, almost all of them vulnerable to human influence in some way," said Caroline Holmes, a sea ice expert at British Antarctic Survey, UK.
The retreat of Antarctic sea ice will make new areas accessible by ships and thus, careful management will be required to protect vulnerable sites, the researchers said.
Satellite data could be used to measure ice speed, sea ice thickness and ice loss at exceptionally fine resolution, they said.
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