A Blueprint for Protecting the Land of Ice

John Weller

The southernmost continent in the world has been heavily exploited by humans, but protecting it for future generations has never been more important than it is now.

Image © John Weller

John Weller

Image © John Weller

Long before the first recorded sighting of the Land of Ice, the ancient Greeks predicted that there must be a great southern continent. Without it, they are credited with saying, the Earth would topple over.

The Southern Ocean is equal parts unfathomable power and delicate magic. Days from land in either direction, north or south, each 10-meter swell sends the ship cork-screwing down into the next oncoming wave, sending a curtain of foaming spray 20 meters into the air. During the worst rolls, you can walk on the walls as the ship navigates the endless silver-black mountains of water. An albatross wheels into view without warning, nonchalantly skims a wingtip across a mighty wave, then disappears again behind another crest. A flock of petrels appears just as suddenly, banking and dipping in unison like a school of fish. Time itself seems to bend to the hypnotic force of the unrelenting sea until, days further south, the ocean calms to nearly glass, and a thin white line stretches across the entire horizon, splitting the sea and sky. As the ship cuts through that line and into the sea ice, the endless towering waves fade like a memory of a dream, and a jigsaw puzzle of ice stretches out to the edge of your imagination.

In the Southern Ocean, the waves send curtains of foaming spray 20 meters into the air · John Weller
After a turbulent ship crossing, the ocean surface finally calms to stillness · John Weller
A thin white band emerges on the horizon at the approach of Antarctica · John Weller
An Adélie penguin tracking across pack ice · John Weller
Antarctica effectively has one day and one night each year. At the South Pole, the sun rises in September and sets in March.

As temperatures plummet during the six-month long Antarctic night, the surface of the ocean around Antarctica freezes into a two-meter thick slab of sea ice, doubling the size of the continent before it slowly breaks up the next Antarctic summer and floats north to melt. This is the world’s grandest annual cycle. In many places, the kaleidoscope of ice is more than 800 kilometers across. The only other features of this frozen desert are the icebergs, sculpted mountains that dwarf the ship and saw at the sky like jagged teeth. There are no words to describe the scale, the silent power.

The icebergs in Antarctica saw at the sky like jagged teeth · John Weller

But this is all just a backdrop, because while Antarctica boasts one of the most extreme environments on Earth, the great Southern Ocean that encircles the continent is teeming with life.

Fantastical creatures

Deep upwellings of nutrients and the six straight months of daylight fuel the largest phytoplankton bloom in the world. This, in turn, supports enormous numbers of Antarctic krill, shrimp-like crustaceans with more biomass than any other animal population on the planet. And on the backs of these tiny creatures, the icy waters explode with life. Minke and humpback whales venture deep into the sea ice, popping up to breathe through improbably small holes, gorging themselves on krill and fish. The whales will carry critical nutrients back to more northern seas when they return in the fall, enriching the waters throughout their migration. Platoons of Adélie, gentoo, and chinstrap penguins zoom past the edges of the ice, herding the swarms of krill into tight groups to attack. They explode out of the sea and onto the ice like corks, leaving parts of their stories written in the snow. Crabeater seals—misnamed as they eat krill almost exclusively—rest uneasily on their chosen puzzle pieces, watching for pods of orcas, who often charge one of these floating ice platforms to create enough of a wave to rock the seals off into the water for an easy meal.

Sea stars and anchor ice. The seawater freezes to the subzero rocks, forming fields of stalagmites, the anchor ice · John Weller
Every one of the inhabitants of Antarctica has its own fantastical story. 

Emperor penguins, for instance, breed in the dead of winter, the males each holding a single egg on their feet as they huddle together in high winds and temperatures of minus 50°C. But their diving physiology is even more astonishing. These are the deepest diving birds in the world, reaching depths of 600 meters and dive times of 25 minutes. Just before a dive, an emperor pumps its heart rate up to 250 beats a minute, saturating its body with oxygen. As it hits the water, it immediately drops its heart rate back down to 60, and over the course of a long dive its heart will slow to just 6 beats a minute. When it resurfaces, it immediately accelerates its heart back to 250 beats a minute. In doing so, the birds replicate the stresses of a human heart attack with every single dive.

Emperor penguins are the best avian divers in the world, reaching depths of 600 meters and dive times of 25 minutes · John Weller

Antarctica is humbling at every turn. The water temperature is below freezing, liquid only because of its salt, and in each encounter with an Antarctic creature you are witnessing a masterpiece of evolution: fish that make their own antifreeze, sea spiders the size of dinner plates, sponges that live for a thousand years and grow as large as shipping barrels, each supremely adapted to the unimaginable rigors of living in a sea of ice. 

Under the ice, near their colonies, Weddell seals will often confront a diver, inspecting our alien presence at close range.

Weddell seals are the southernmost breeding mammals in the world, and the only air-breathing animals besides emperor penguins to brave the Antarctic winter.

To survive, these seals must at times dive 800 meters deep—enduring the pressure of a car crusher—stay submerged for an hour and a half, eat their way through the ice to keep their dive holes open through the winter, and call out to each other with cries as loud as blasts of dynamite. 

Weddell seals are barely mobile above water, as they lie on the ice. But below water, they dance and sing · John Weller

Leopard seals also approach divers. Paul Nicklen, my good friend and co-founder of the nonprofit SeaLegacy, which works toward a healthy and abundant ocean, has experienced this on multiple occasions:

We were diving off the coast of Anvers Island—looking for leopard seals. 12 feet long and weighing up to 1,320 lbs, these seals can glide, accelerate, and turn effortlessly. They are one of the continent’s most powerful predators and if somebody had told me beforehand what was going to happen next, I would never have believed them. I had entered the territory of a female leopard seal and she was confused. I had ignored every threat and every warning she gave me—lunging at me again and again in a mock attack with her mouth wide open, showing off her powerful jaw and teeth. So instead, she started bringing me penguins. Every day when I entered the water, she would approach me again and again, presenting me with penguin after penguin. I believe she was trying to help me, to teach me how to hunt. As a photographer, this was the most profound imagery of my life. But as a human being, it had an even deeper effect, because I recognized that this phenomenal creature, who was trying to help me find a meal, was in imminent peril because of us. Because of people.
Paul Nicklen
Co-founder, SeaLegacy & Only One

It is expensive to visit Antarctica. While tourism to the southernmost continent has increased in recent years, only a limited number of people, including researchers and conservationists, have the privilege of visiting Antarctica and thus, reflecting on what they experience. And while the fate of Antarctica is connected to all of us regardless of where we live on the planet, it’s important to acknowledge that a majority of people don’t have the luxury to worry about how to protect Antarctica, and so it’s difficult to understand the connections. Paul’s story helps us more easily see those connections. Antarctica and all the species that inhabit its frigid waters are hurtling toward a cliff because of human activities; the loss of these species would be catastrophic for the planet.

Today, more than 90 percent of Antarctica’s ice shelves are in rapid retreat · John Weller

An existential threat

In just a few decades, climate change has transformed the very fundamentals of the Antarctic environment, and the northernmost point of the Land of Ice, the Antarctic Peninsula, provides a window into the likely long-term future of this continent. Dozens of ice shelves—massive floating glaciers, thousands of feet thick—line the peninsula, filling in bays along the steep, rocky coast. Under normal conditions, large icebergs regularly calve—or break off—the front of these ice shelves, but then expand again to recover that area. This process has been stable for the last 10,000 years. But now, more than 90 percent of the ice shelves are in rapid retreat:

The sound was so thunderous that I felt it in my chest before the actual ‘crack.’ My immediate thought was that something serious had broken on the ship, or someone was in danger. You cannot hear a sound like that without assuming its repercussions are life-threatening. But my rising panic was replaced with inexplicable awe as I realized the source of the sound, and the front of the calving ice shelf broke away and rocketed into the Antarctic ocean in front of me. The force was overwhelming, and in that moment was the realization that an amalgamation of so many seemingly tiny ripples had caused such a monumental effect. I have been burdened ever since knowing that this event itself was only a tiny ripple of climate change. I was witnessing a crack in the foundation of our environment, and its ultimate impact on humanity will be tremendous.
Andy Mann
Photographer & filmmaker

A dozen ice shelves have collapsed completely, breaking up and floating out to sea to melt. And this is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Antarctica as a whole is melting at an accelerating rate, changing the entire physical nature of the continent and driving sea level rise. Maps of Antarctica have to be redrawn every year, and if these trends continue, most coastal cities will be underwater in a few centuries.

In the shorter term, the sea ice around the Peninsula has already changed dramatically. Not only is it much less extensive, but the sea ice is now only present for a few months of the summer. Each species’ interaction with the sea ice is unique and complex, and these changes have torn apart the complex web of interconnections. Populations of Adélie and emperor penguins, which depend on sea ice, have declined by 65 percent along the Peninsula in the last 25 years. Chinstrap and gentoo penguins, more northern species that avoid sea ice, are starting to replace them. Weddell seals are also on the decline, as are silverfish, one of the most important prey species in the coastal Antarctic aside from krill. The entire ecosystem is contracting with the ice, squeezed even further south into regions of the Antarctic that have not yet warmed as much as the Peninsula. There is not much further south that they can go.

“Maps of Antarctica have to be redrawn every year, and if these trends continue, most coastal cities will be underwater in a few centuries.” · John Weller

On a global scale, the links between Antarctica and climate change are not confined to melting ice. Every year, the Southern Ocean absorbs and sequesters around a third of all carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, buffering all life on Earth, including humanity, from the full force of greenhouse gases, including those emitted by burning fossil fuels. Additionally, Antarctica’s ice acts as a giant reflector, reflecting heat back into space, and thus as a global heat sink. Put another way, Antarctica and the Southern Ocean help to keep temperatures on Earth livable for us all. For now.

Antarctica’s ice is melting, and the processes that allow the Southern Ocean to absorb our emissions are slowing. In the meantime, the more carbon dioxide is absorbed, the more acidic the ocean becomes. Already, populations of small calcifying organisms like pteropods are declining, unable to form shells in the newly acidic water. And there are other, more surprising effects, like rain. Co-founder of SeaLegacy Cristina Mittermeier has witnessed the impact of increased rainfall on penguins:

When we landed, we could see that there was something terribly wrong in the colony. The penguin chicks were soaked, their downy feathers matted to their bodies and streaked with mud. They were shivering, and so did we as we realized the gravity of what we were witnessing. At the wrong time of year, before the chicks have grown their adult feathers, rain or even snow can wipe out entire generations of these birds. It was like photographing a death march.
Cristina Mittermeier
Co-founder, SeaLegacy & Only One

The overwhelming challenges that these Antarctic animals face are compounded by external pressure on their fast-changing ecosystems from another top predator: humans. The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports that carbon dioxide emissions have risen by about 90 percent since 1970. And about 78 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions from 1970 to 2011 were the result of fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes.

Changes in individual behavior will help, especially in terms of lowering demand for goods and services derived from petrochemicals. Yet it is much more important, and urgent, to shift our energy needs away from fossil fuels. The first step is demanding that governments take action against the hundred or so corporations responsible for the rise in emissions, climate change denial and misinformation campaigns, and egregious environmental injustice.

It may be hard to believe, but the actions we take, regardless of where we live, can affect the fate of Antarctica and all the unique species that call it home.
Antarctica and the Southern Ocean help regulate the world’s climate. But Antarctica’s ice is melting, and the processes that allow the Southern Ocean to absorb our emissions are slowing · John Weller

Ending exploitation

Our exploitation of the Southern Ocean began in the 1790s, when sealers started hunting fur seals for their thick pelts. In just 30 years, many populations were on the brink of collapse, and the industry turned to elephant seals and penguins for their oil. Then industrial whaling came into force in the early 1900s. Whale oil quite literally lubricated the industrial revolution, and by the time industrial whaling was banned globally in the 1980s, the populations of great whales were less than 10 percent of their original numbers. Most species have never recovered. 

Our appetites not satisfied, finfish fisheries were established in the 1960s, crashing after only a few years. Next came fisheries for Patagonian toothfish. Known as “white gold” because of its high market price, this fish was sold in the 1990s under the more appealing but deceptive name of “Chilean sea bass.” These fisheries were also quickly overexploited, forcing fishing vessels further south in search of Antarctic toothfish, which is sold under the same name. An even more vulnerable species, Antarctic toothfish are the target of the ongoing and highly contentious Ross Sea toothfish fishery.

Emperor penguin and ice breaker. Driven by depletion to find the last healthy fish stocks around the world, industry has come again to the Ross Sea, this time with long lines of hooks intended for the Antarctic toothfish · John Weller

Krill fishing actually started in the 1960s, but the difficulty in processing the massive catches before they degraded made the krill mostly unfit for human consumption, so it was instead used as fishmeal for aquaculture. Fearing overexploitation, in 1982 nations from all over the world came together to sign a treaty to form CCAMLR, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, to protect and manage the fishery, introducing catch limits and broad spatial management. But CCAMLR’s mandate went much further. The language of this treaty is beautiful, rational, and forward-thinking. And, despite the need for 100 percent consensus from more than two dozen nations to adopt any policy, CCAMLR has proven that it can take action on important conservation initiatives.

In 2002, CCAMLR committed to creating a network of marine protected areas, or MPAs, to safeguard the heart of the Southern Ocean.

And despite the fact that it took more than a decade to reach consensus, on October 28, 2016, CCAMLR adopted the world’s largest MPA and the first large-scale international MPA in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. It was a triumph of international cooperation.

“If we are to change our course, we must introduce sweeping changes within the next decade. We must protect ourselves by protecting our environment.” · John Weller

Now we have the chance to act again. Currently, there are three large-scale marine protected areas, or MPAs, under consideration by CCAMLR: in the Antarctic Peninsula region, the Weddell Sea, and East Antarctica. If they are adopted, it will be one of the largest acts of conservation ever to take place in human history.

Recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services emphasize that we are reaching the point of no return in terms of climate change and, at the same time, facing a fourth great extinction. If we are to change our course, we must introduce sweeping changes within the next decade. We must protect ourselves by protecting our environment. And when it comes to the ocean, nothing works better than an MPA. A “no-take” MPA, where all fishing activities and extractive industries are prohibited, can result in a dramatic and rapid rebound. Independent data from 124 no-take MPAs demonstrates an average increase of 446 percent in biomass and 21 percent in species diversity. MPAs have also been shown to buffer the effects of climate change.

If our history in the Antarctic has taught us anything, it is that we continuously overestimate how much we can exploit and how quickly resources are depleted.

Even the krill industry—well managed compared to other global fisheries—has potentially devastating impacts. Krill populations, too, are contracting around Antarctica, dependent on the ice in critical moments of their lifecycle. Thus, the industry has become more and more concentrated. Recent studies suggest that even the relatively low catch limits result in local depletions of krill in areas that are critical for Antarctica’s embattled denizens. The Ross Sea toothfish fishery also has the potential to do great harm, despite the MPA. We have to do better.

The Ross Sea is the primary range for a distinct population of orcas, known as Type C. Scientists have observed a dramatic decrease in these fish-eating orcas concurrent with the rise of the Ross Sea tooth fishery · John Weller

Age of enlightenment

The ancient Greeks were surprisingly spot on in their prediction. The Southern Ocean around Antarctica regulates our climate, recycles vital nutrients from the deep ocean, and supports one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth. The loss of these functions would indeed be like the Earth toppling over.

We are just beginning to understand the importance of Antarctica to our global ocean.

Terrifying current events like the Covid-19 global pandemic tell us that we are tightly tied both to each other and to our environment. We must act quickly and work together if we are to survive the forthcoming “pandemics” of a changing climate and fast-disappearing resources. In the long run, the only way to conserve Antarctica is to stop burning fossil fuels, keeping it frozen. But we must also provide all the forms of protection we can to help this ecosystem deal with the impending changes. While we squabble over a few thousand tons of krill and toothfish, the extraordinary creatures of the Southern Ocean are fighting for their very existence.

Prohibiting all fishing activities and extractive industries in a “no-take” MPA can result in a dramatic and rapid rebound · John Weller

As we enter this new decade, ocean health continues to decline precipitously all over the world. Together, we need to take a stand.

We need to open the door to a new age of enlightened ocean conservation—one that is inclusive, global, visionary. And Antarctica holds the key.

The proposed network of new MPAs would be a vital haven for some of the most vulnerable creatures on our planet. It would be a start in aligning our nations, our societies, and our efforts for the common good. It would be a step forward in ensuring a safe and abundant world for our children.

It is our chance to accomplish the greatest sanctuary Earth has ever known.

“As we enter this new decade, ocean health continues to decline precipitously all over the world. Together, we need to take a stand.” · John Weller
I hope you enjoyed reading and continue to follow us on this journey. We need to show up this year with the strength in numbers and visibility. We need to show CCAMLR that the world is watching once again.

John Weller

Photographer, Writer, Filmmaker, Senior Fellow of Only One

An acclaimed photographer, filmmaker, and writer, John has worked in defense of the ocean for nearly 20 years. He helped lead the global campaign to secure the world’s largest marine protected area in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.

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