Polar Notes

Mar 2020

All eyes are on Antarctica

Antarctica, currently in deep winter, has once again been attracting global interest. At the beginning of July, NASA scientists reported that, since 2014, the sea ice extent around the white continent has fallen dramatically. The losses seen around Antarctica over the past four years are as much as those observed in the Arctic in the last 34 years. This is a surprising turnaround since in the four decades prior to 2014, the Antarctic sea extent (although not the overall volume of sea ice) had actually been increasing slowly. Now, scientists are finding that, for the first time since satellite measurements began, sea ice extent is retreating significantly at both poles.

Researchers monitoring Antarctic sea ice are unsure what exactly caused the sharp decline or whether the sea ice will recover. Regardless, the disappearance of an area of sea ice around Antarctica that is bigger than Mexico is concerning as it will lead to even more heat being absorbed by the surrounding ocean. Warmer Antarctic waters are already undermining glaciers, speeding up the rate at which previously fast land ice melts into the sea, and adding to the problem of global sea level rise.

Meanwhile, a second study, focusing on instability in the Thwaites Glacier, which is currently the subject of a £20 million scientific collaboration between the UK and the US (see PolarNotes #31 and the recent APPG for the Polar Regions Briefing Note ‘Thwaites: Antarctica’s Doomsday Glacier’, both attached), has warned that if the rate of ice loss from Antarctica’s glaciers continues to increase, the loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet will likely be inevitable. US scientists have suggested that the entire ice sheet could be lost in the space of 150 years. The loss of the Thwaites Glacier alone would add around 50cm to global sea levels. Although it is expected to take a few more centuries to happen, the increasing instability of glaciers like Thwaites makes it hard to predict exactly when such an event could unfold. Critically, once a tipping point in the melt process is reached, the eventual loss of the ice sheet will likely be unstoppable.

With Antarctica attracting so much attention from scientists, the media, and the wider public, it is only right that Parliamentarians and others representing the world’s legislatures should also take an active interest in the region. There are many ways for the world’s legislatures to scrutinise what happens in Antarctica and greater collaboration between them to promote the ratification of national laws implementing international agreement would provide valuable support to Antarctica’s governing bodies.

James Gray MP and the APPG for the Polar Regions are therefore delighted to be hosting the first ever Antarctic Parliamentarians Assembly in London later this year (2-3 December). This initiative is being supported by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the British Antarctic Survey, and receiving advice from the international Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research. The Assembly will bring together representatives from states that have signed the Antarctic Treaty to consider why Antarctica matters, how it is under threat, and, crucially, what Parliaments and other legislatures can do to support the Antarctic Treaty System and its central aim of supporting peace, science and environmental protection in the world’s most remote continent.

The Assembly will also celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the signing of the Antarctic Treaty, which falls on ‘Antarctica Day’, 1 December, 2019.

Polar Notes is written by Dr Duncan Depledge and endorsed by
 James Gray MP (Chairman, APPG for the Polar Regions). 

Please send any comments, queries, or suggestions to info@appgpolarregions.uk. 

This is not an official publication of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. It has not been approved by either House or its committees. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions.