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Climate Change Threatens Biodiversity Of Ice-Free Antarctica: Study

30 June 2017, 10:30 pm EDT By Athena Chan Tech Times
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A new study shows the possibility of species expansion, localized extinctions, and the entering of invasive species should Antarctica continue to thaw. The continent's resident penguins are among those that could experience the sudden changes in the continent's biodiversity.   ( Pixabay )

Antarctica is one location where climate change's effects are most apparent. With its melting ice and changing landscapes, Antarctica's ecosystem and biodiversity are also at risk of being significantly altered.

Biodiversity In The 1 Percent

Biodiversity isn't exactly what we first picture when we think of Antarctica. If anything, perhaps the first words that come to mind are ice, freezing, and maybe penguins. In fact, Antarctica actually does have a significant biodiversity, but one that is isolated, distant, and occurs almost exclusively in the continent's ice-free areas.

A study published in the journal Nature explains that Antarctica's terrestrial biodiversity can be found in merely 1 percent of the continent that is ice-free. It is in that mere 1 percent that most of Antarctica's biodiversity, which includes Emperor penguins, flowering plants, mosses, and nematodes such as the hardy tardigrades, better known as "water bears," thrive.

Apart from housing some of the permanent residents of these ice-free zones, these green spaces are also excellent breeding grounds for other animals such as seals and seabirds.

Antarctica's Great Thaw

The study is concerned about the possible significant changes that can happen in Antarctica's biodiversity due to the rapid melting of ice in the continent fuelled by the planet's warming. In other words, Antarctica is turning green and we are still unaware of what might happen to its residents as it continues to change.

Currently, Antarctica's biodiversity can only be found in small patches of green in the form of mountain tops, valleys, cliffs, or islands that range in size and distances from one another. Because of this, the animals that live in the patches are isolated from one another. As Antarctica's ice continues to melt, it is expected that these patches will grow bigger in time, therefore, moving them closer together.

Should the rate of melting continue, researchers of the study forecast that Antarctica may see more than 6,500 square miles more of ice-free land by 2100.

Changes In Biodiversity

It may sound like the animals will merely have more space to breed and live, and on one hand, it actually does. If this happens, certain plant species may be able to expand and grow in territories that have previously been much too cold for them to thrive in.

However, having certain animal species suddenly meet after long periods of isolation could lead to competition and localized extinctions. Simply put, Antarctica could also lose many plant and animal species as its ecosystem changes.

Even more worrying for researchers is the possibility of the spread of invasive species as the continent's temperature becomes friendlier to non-native species. This includes non-native seeds, insects, microbes, and even humans.

As such, the researchers are calling for the continuous protection of Antarctica's ice-free areas, and monitoring of possibly invasive species.

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