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Gareth Morgan: The challenge of Antarctica

Gareth Morgan leads a 30-day voyage to the Subantarctic Islands to study humankind's impact on Antarctica.

While visiting Antarctica in 2008, I realised it was the nearest I’d ever get to being on another planet. I was so taken with the subantarctic wildlife, the Southern Ocean’s moods and the scale of the landscape, I knew I had to return. The 2008 trip was a bit of a boy’s-own, but this time it’s going to be more serious. Although humankind has been insignificant in this environment in the past, that is changing rapidly. The consequences of this continuing trend, and our failing efforts to contain it, are the subject of my project.

My first challenge was to get buy-in from experts who could provide the knowledge required to make reasonable judgments on the seriousness of the challenges faced in the far south. Most of them work for government agencies – scientific research houses, regulatory and diplomatic agencies. After all, the continent is subject to the Antarctic Treaty System, so one of our inquiries has to be whether this exercise in international co-operation is going to be up to the pressures of the inevitable race for resources.

To fill the ship, I needed 50 people; I was happy to sponsor some, but most have had to pay their own way. I was determined this would be a New Zealand exercise. The problems of Our Far South pose challenges for New Zealand, and if we had had an international crew aboard, those would have been lost as the global perspective dominated debate and focus.

So to the challenge of getting experts aboard who will lift the quality of the discussions and educate the rest of us so we can form a balanced view. When thinking about the main New Zealand stakeholders in the region, I came up with Antarctica NZ, Niwa and the Department of Conservation (DoC) – all agencies with areas of responsibility to promote our interests. I needed buy-in from each one.

Antarctica NZ operates Scott Base and manages New Zealand’s research programmes on the continent and around the Ross Dependency, our (suspended) territorial claim. CEO Lou Sanson was enthusiastic about the project. Next were Niwa and DoC, respectively responsible for much of the scientific research around the Southern Ocean and management of our subantarctic territory. After I’d outlined the project, both agencies jumped aboard, and that support enabled me to approach the agencies that employ the other necessary experts: GNS, Victoria University’s Antarctic Research Centre, the University of Otago’s Marine Science Department, Te Papa’s marine mammal section and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Then it was just a matter of completing the expert quota with people from the fishing industry and marine protection and enhancement NGOs.

I then set about gathering another 40 souls happy to learn and, most important, spread the key messages through their networks – and pay for that privilege. Each one has obligations to further the project’s purpose in some way. The end result? Four commissioned books, a couple of films, and a host of online and offline communications materials. A big schools programme will be a highlight of the voyage’s outreach. We’ve ended up with a wide cross-section – teachers, musicians, doctors, nurses, architects, farmers, lawyers, IT specialists, airline pilots, engineers, filmmakers, photo­graphers – all interested in learning.

So to the issues. The on board lectures will cover three subjects: the consequences of decreasing biodiversity, the impact of climate change past, present and future, and the race for resources. The third covers the following:

    • The pros and cons of increasing tourism;
    • The race to fish (krill and toothfish);
    • Mineral exploration and exploitation on the continent; and
    • Territorial aspirations – why are countries really building all these bases?

Given the region is contiguous to our mainland and incorporates some of our exclusive economic zone, we can’t escape the consequences of its changing future. The spate of recent incidents in the Ross Sea is just one indicator of the effects of increasing activity in the Southern Ocean, including vessels ill-prepared to cope with the conditions.

I’ve been aware of the threat from climate change to Antarctica since writing Poles Apart in 2008. As can be seen in the Arctic, the polar regions are the most at threat from rapid climate change. Because of the sheer bulk of ice and the ozone hole, Antarctica itself has so far been spared the worst of this temperature change. One exception is the Antarctic Peninsula, which is now facing similar temperature rises and melting as the Arctic. However, the Southern Ocean is warming rapidly, and is also growing more acidic from the extra carbon dioxide humans are putting into the atmosphere and less saline as more ice melts.

It’s hard to know what far-reaching changes will result, as the Southern Ocean is central to the world’s weather, wind and currents. New Zealand’s Subantarctic Islands are in the middle of these effects, so they’re a great location to observe change.

Kiwi scientists are prominent in the climate-change debate. The White Continent is not only the canary down the coalmine for climate change; it is also a perfectly preserved record of Earth’s climate history. Our scientists have been laboriously picking through the ice and sediment cores drilled from Antarctica to reconstruct the past 20 million years of climate changes.

Once you start talking to scientists, it’s obvious things are heating up down there in more ways than one. For some countries, the science is just a thinly veiled attempt at stamping a claim over Antarctica. The race for territory reached fever pitch in the early and mid-20th century, when the thinking was “finders keepers; use it or lose it”. The creation of the Antarctic Treaty System in 1959 saw all signatories agreeing to suspend their territorial claims and work together in the interests of peace and science. Yet beneath the thin veneer of diplomacy, the race for territory still simmers, and it’s slowly turning into a race for resources.

Under the Antarctic Treaty System, mining is banned. There are few proven oil and mineral sites, and none where extraction is economic. This part of the treaty is able to be reviewed in 2048, although international treaties usually contain get-out clauses, as Japan has demonstrated with whaling. Russia is lining up the Arctic for oil drilling. How long before this technology is used in Antarctica? In the meantime, there’s nothing to stop companies sampling Antarctica’s living organisms and using them to isolate and patent new chemicals for use in things like pharmaceutical and beauty products. This form of mining, known as “bioprospecting”, is unregulated around the world.

Commercial operations do exist. Fishing for toothfish in the Ross Sea is well known because of the environmental objections and the recent clutch of boats getting into trouble. We know less about the fishing for krill on the Atlantic side of Antarctica. This is also contentious, as krill are the base of the Antarctic food chain, providing nourishment to whales, seals and birds.

Tourism has become big business in the past 20 years. It is vital for saving Antarctica, and most tourists become passionate advocates for the area, but it is also a threat. Although the continent is huge, both tourists and scientists visit the same places, which is where the bases are built. Small ice-free coastal zones are prime real estate in Antarctica, particularly as they are favoured by wildlife.

All these threats add up to a worrying future for the south – for the wildlife as well as us. It can be hard to work out what is having the biggest impact: indirect impacts like climate change or direct impacts like fishing. In our Subantarctic Islands since the 1940s, populations of rockhopper penguins are down by 94%, southern elephant seals are down by 97% and there’s been an 85% reduction in grey-headed mollymawks (a type of albatross). Some of the problem is inter­national – our seabird populations roam the world, and international fisheries do untold damage to them as a result.

Protecting the biodiversity of Our Far South provides plenty of headaches, even within our own waters. The complexities of the situation are being played out in the stoush over Hooker’s sea lions and the squid fishery. Sea lions used to get trapped in squid trawl nets, but the fishery has developed new nets that let the sea lions escape, and the latest evidence is that they seem to be working.

As a result, the Ministry of Fisheries has recommended that all restrictions on squid fishing be lifted. Yet the sea lion population has been steadily declining for many years, and a recent report claims they are headed for extinction. How could this be? Are the new nets not working? Is the squid fishery removing vital prey for the sea lions? Or is climate change the real problem, as it has been for the likes of the rockhopper penguin? For example, warmer oceans may mean prey is moving deeper and out of reach.

Our “off-site” study camp will hopefully leave those aboard the ship better informed and equipped to comment on these issues. It’s promised the topics will be so enthralling that seasickness won’t be noticed.

More information at www.ourfarsouth.org.