A new study presents two possible future scenarios that could happen in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean over the course of the next 50 years.
The study explored two possibilities where one involved neglecting the increasing greenhouse gas emissions at present and another where appropriate actions were taken to restrain the emissions and the destructive human activities in the continent.
The imagined scenarios were presented by a team of international authors comprised of experts in biology, oceanography, glaciology, geophysics, climate science, and policy.
The Bleak Scenario
In the first scenario, the authors assumed that Antarctica was continuously neglected and exposed to the impacts of global warming, ocean acidification, infiltration of destructive species, and vicious human activities. In this situation, Antarctica would experience a collapse of its major ice shelves, leading to an extreme sea level rise.
By 2070, the continent would lose about a quarter of its entire sea ice. Penguins, seabirds, and seals would see a decline in alarming rate.
The melted ice could trigger an irreversible rise in global sea levels. The United States could acquire an estimated $1 trillion worth of damages. At this point, the average Earth temperature would reach 3.5 degrees Celsius. In comparison, the United Nations described a 2-degree temperature rise as already "catastrophic."
As for the Southern Ocean, the rise in temperature would create more scattered icebergs that could eventually kill the fishing industry in the region.
"Continued high greenhouse gas emissions risk committing us to changes in Antarctica that will have long-term and far-reaching consequences for Earth and humanity," said Steve Rintoul, lead author for the study and a senior scientist at Australia's CSIRO.
The Optimistic Scenario
In the second scenario, the authors assumed that all concerned parties have implemented policies that would control greenhouse gas emissions that affect the continent. In this situation, the Antarctic ecosystems were well-preserved, global warming was kept in safe levels, and tourism and fishing in the region were conducted sustainably.
By 2070, Antarctica would maintain its current condition. Its ice shelves would remain preserved, and sea level rising would be kept at tolerable levels.
The study, published in Nature on June 13, suggested that people could shape Antarctica's future at present.
"If we take action now, to limit greenhouse gas emissions, Antarctic environments will remain much as we have come to know them over the past 200 years," said Steven Chown, coauthor of the study and professor from Monash University in Melbourne.
On the other hand, if people do not take action, the worsening conditions in Antarctica could bring irreparable damage to the rest of the world, Chown warned.