January 26, 2009

Antarctic Creatures In Danger From Rising Temperatures

Researchers have found evidence to suggest that many creatures common to Antarctica may be threatened by even the slightest temperature increase.

The creatures, such as Antarctic sea spiders, limpets or sea urchins are among the least studied on the face of the earth. Even a rise of 2 or 3 degrees Celsius could result in life-threatening conditions, Simon Morley, a marine biologist at the British Antarctic Survey at Rothera, told Reuters.

"Because this is one of the most rapidly warming areas on the planet and because the animals are so temperature sensitive...this marine ecosystem is at higher risk than almost anywhere else on the planet," said Morley.

In lab studies, researchers have demonstrated that warmer conditions can cause clams and limpets to lose the crucial "ability to right themselves if they land upside down."

"I think that we will see changes in the ecosystems, more in some species and less in other species.

"It does look as if these mechanisms are truly applicable worldwide," he said.

Other underwater species could be in grave danger as a result of climate change, including coral reefs, Morley added.

Ali Massey and Terri Souster recently ventured into Rothera's bay to study underwater habitats.

"It is a fascinating place to dive," Souster, a 24-year-old South African, told Reuters.

Icebergs are also a threat to species because they are at risk of being crushed by their movements across the shallow seabed. Climate change could trigger even more iceberg movement because it threatens to melt crucial sea ice, which locks icebergs into place.

Experts are also concerned that outside species may begin to arrive on the peninsula, threatening native ones.

"It's something we are really concerned about," Morley told Reuters, noting that at current rates of warming the danger was about 50 years away.

Researchers have reported evidence to confirm suspicions that Antarctica is indeed warming.

"What we found, in a nutshell, is that Antarctica is not cooling," said Professor Eric Steig at the University of Washington, whose study is published in the journal Nature.

"Now some parts of it have been cooling, but only since the late 1970s, and only in certain seasons, primarily in autumn."

"On average the entire continent is warming and especially it is warming in winter and spring. Finally, west Antarctica, just like the Antarctic peninsula, is warming in all seasons."

This study showing warming means we can't be complacent about thinking the West Antarctica ice sheet is invulnerable," Steig said. "It will eventually melt if warming like this continues."


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