But not for long!
Researchers at the University of Hawaii (Manoa), have discovered an unexpected abundance of diverse life at sea-bed levels in the sub-polar fjords of Antarctica.
During a recent expedition, scientists studied sea-bed communities appearing to dominate along the western Antarctic Peninsula – a region undergoing very rapid warming in climate.
Experts expected to find impoverished marine life due to disturbance from melting glaciers, similar to other eco-systems well-documented in studies of Arctic sedimentations. On the contrary, they a wealth of jellyfish, sea cucumbers and other species on the ocean floor, also present was a high number of shrimp.
Studies published in the journal “PLOS ONE” conclude that differences in diversity and growth between northern and southern fjords can be explained the fact that the Antarctic sub-polars are in an earlier stage of global warming than the Arctic. This warming allows high levels of productivity, with as yet less disturbance from melting glaciers:
“Our study long the Antarctic Peninsula shows that this area is warming faster than anywhere in the world and eco-systems are changing rapidly there”, warns Craig Smith, University of Hawaii, who has been studying how marine eco-systems in Antarctica respond to global warming.
“There seems to be something special about these fjords that stimulates productivity at the sea-bed,” adds Laura Grange, researcher at University of Southampton, UK, who was a post-doctoral partner of Smith during the research.
“Eco-systems at the bottom of the fjords feed on detritus food, therefore these Antarctic regions must be getting some kind of enhanced input of good, most likely phytoplankton, macro-algal debris, or even molted shells of shrimp.”
Scientists are even suggesting that large clusters of humpback whales could be boosting eco-growth in the western peninsulas through defecation during seasonal migration.
But anyone thanking global warming for this growth in marine life had better notice a red-herring swimming nearby.
In Antarctica today, glaciers at the fjords are experiencing very little melting and land drifts by the sea without leaving much sediment. This allows plankton and algae to bloom and produce with little disturbance to fauna from chunks of ice, unlike in the Arctic.
Sediment reaching the sea-bed will probably bury diverse plankton communities or suffocate their primary production, resulting in a stifling of biodiversity.
“It’s very likely that these unique eco-systems will be adversely affected by rapid change in temperature already occurring across the Antarctic Peninsula”, laments Professor Smith, “The fjords are also a focus for eco-tourism, with thousands of visitors on cruises each year entering the area to see penguins, whales, and to witness the abundance and diversity of Antarctic life.
“These eco-systems play a disproportionately large role in the recruitment of larger marine life, including small fish and whales. It’s a matter of urgency that we gain a better understanding of the structure, function, and climate sensitivity of these fascinating sea-bed communities, that stand currently at considerable risk.”
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