The Last Frontier: Antarctica's Southern Ocean
Diving into the Antarctic’s cold ocean, the intrepid explorer will witness bright-colored sea stars, oddly shaped sponges, and bottom-dwelling creatures blanketing the seafloor. Strange fish with white blood containing natural anti-freeze pumping through their bodies hover in the water column. Whales breach the surface of cold, nutrient-rich waters. Meanwhile, atop the glaciers and sheets of ice, penguins, seals, and seabirds dot the barren landscape. Life bustles throughout the icy region.
Many researchers refer to Antarctica and the surrounding ocean as one of the world’s last frontiers. Covering an area around 1.4 times the size of the United States (14 million km2), the continent is the coldest, driest, highest, and windiest on Earth. Regardless of its remote and harsh conditions, it is tightly linked to the global system in ways that researchers say they are just beginning to understand.
Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are the least explored and least understood marine regions in the world. Nearly a century after the first person reached the South Pole, the abundant life underneath the ocean’s frozen surface is just beginning to be discovered.
Though we know so little, these pristine areas are threatened in ways and on a scale never seen before, warns Mission Blue Founder and National Geographic explorer-in-residence Dr. Sylvia Earle. “A few nations, a few companies, a few industries are taking on a large scale without paying a cost,” Dr. Earle explained. “They are depleting what belongs to everyone, and they are doing it in a heartbeat of geologic time.”
This industrial activity is putting increasing pressure on the unique and fragile ecosystem. Recent reports suggest that the ocean around Antarctica is home to nearly 10,000 species, many of which are endemic to the area and cannot be found anywhere else on Earth. And though the Southern Ocean constitutes roughly 15 percent of the global ocean, less than 1 percent is protected.
American actor and film producer Leonardo DiCaprio said, “The whales and penguins can’t speak for themselves, so it’s up to us to defend them.”
Scientists say it is about more than protecting the charismatic whales and penguins. It is about preserving a relatively untouched area that offers insights into life, ecosystem interactions, and survival in extreme environments.
Twenty-four member countries and the European Union established the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) in 1982 to regulate these frigid waters. Now more than ever, researchers, conservationists, activists, and public stakeholders are putting pressure on CCAMLR to ensure the long-term protection of the unique ecosystems that remain.
In South Korea recently, Dr. Earle told a group of people why everyone should take an interest in the ocean and what the CCAMLR members are discussing behind closed doors about the Antarctic Ocean. “If you like to breathe, you will want to take care of the ocean and you will worry about taking krill from the Antarctic Ocean — because krill are involved in the chemistry of the ocean, which in turn effects the ability of the ocean to produce oxygen and take up carbon, that in the end drive the basic systems that make our lives possible.”