The future of polar seas under climate change

The poles are one of the most rapidly heating areas of the Earth due to climate change. With increasingly warmer waters and lower ice cover, ecosystems are en route to massive changes. This will also affect the human use of the region, such as fishing and tourism. While the economic value of polar ecosystems may even increase in short term, the long-term consequences are still likely to be very severe for wildlife.

Short-term benefits for humans

As polar ice melts, more water will be exposed to light, enabling phytoplankton – microscopic algae – to increase in number. Phytoplankton is the basis of all marine food chains. Therefore, this change is likely going to drive an increase in the abundance of other wildlife, like fish. This will be highly beneficial for fisheries, which are already rejoicing as a result of a very high numbers of Atlantic cod that moves north in search of cooler water and longer fishing season. With retreating ice, more area will also become available for longer parts of the year for nature tourism.

Disaster for the ecosystems

However, climate change will also bring drastic negative changes to the polar environments. A lot of the wildlife, such as Adelie and Macaroni penguins, depend on krill and icy conditions, which will decline in the future. Furthermore, new species are invading the polar regions, such as killer whales. These large predators expose fish to a greater pressure from predation when they are already experiencing it from fishing. Many species also directly depend on sea ice for habitat, such as polar bears, seals and harp seals. The changing poles will also affect other parts of the ocean, as they are all connected by ocean currents. In this way, the increased abundance of plankton consuming nutrients at the poles will decrease the available nutrients in other ocean region, decreasing fish stocks there.

How should we conserve the polar regions?

With all these drastic ecosystem changes, the polar regions require strong conservation to prevent overexploitation of the seas and to mitigate the impacts of climate change. However, the Arctic and Antarctic regions are challenging for conservation from multiple reasons. There is still a lack of understanding and knowledge about these ecosystems, as many species still remain unknown. Furthermore, the territories are split among many different countries. Thus, this requires transnational cooperation to establish networks of protected areas, preventing their overexploitation. Equally, fisheries and other industries should increase their knowledge on the impact their activities have on wildlife. Most importantly, the possible increase in economic value of the polar oceans should not weaken our perception of climate change as a massive threat to the world we know.

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