Ice-free areas in Antarctica could expand by close to 25% by the end of this century and drastically change the biodiversity of the continent, according to a study led by Australian scientists.
The research in the journal Nature is the first to examine the impact of climate change on ice-free areas in Antarctica.
Less than 1% of the continent is ice-free and is home to almost all Antarctic plants and animals.
The research, led under the Australian Antarctic Program by PhD student Jasmine Lee and Australian Antarctic Division senior research scientist Dr Aleks Terauds, shows a warming climate will cause ice-free areas to expand and join together.
“While this might provide new areas for native species to colonise, it could also result in the spread of invasive species, and in the long-term, the extinction of less competitive native species,” says Dr Terauds.
The study predicts that melt across the Antarctic continent will lead to the emergence of up to 17,267 km2, close to 25%, of new ice-free areas by the end of this century.
Lee, from the University of Queensland and the CSIRO, says the team used models to examine the impact of climate change on ice-free areas.
“Until now, Antarctic climate change research has focused mainly on ice sheets and the potential impact on global sea level rise, while the effect of climate change on ice melt and native Antarctic biodiversity has been largely overlooked,” she says.
“Permanently ice free areas range in size from less than one square kilometre to thousands of square kilometres and they are an important breeding ground for seals and seabirds.
“They are also home to small invertebrates such as springtails and nematodes, and vegetation including fungi, lichen and moss, many of which occur nowhere else in the world.”
The paper was co-authored by scientists from the Australian Antarctic Division, ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science (The University of Queensland), British Antarctic Survey, CSIRO, and the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (University of Tasmania).
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