Climate Change, Glaciers, Permafrost, Biodiversity, and Us

By Irena McNaughton, Lyrah McInnis, and Mikayla Mariano


When describing Antarctica, it’s often described as icy, intense, dangerous, and dangerously freezing. This region is located at the polar caps of our planet, both the South Pole and the North Pole. Antarctica is a region of freezing temperatures with glaciers and ice sheets that cover the horizon for miles. Historically, it’s seen as It is home to a multitude of animals and provides a wide range of sources for our Earth that allow any living life form to survive and prosper. However, the dangerous, yet breathtaking, region is in impending doom. Increasing climate, or global warming, is leading to the destruction and melting of Antarctica’s ice sheets and glaciers; which will cause a global catastrophic event.

[1] Photo by Tom Hegen

[1] Photo by Tom Hegen

Engulfed in ice and snow, it might be suprising that Antarctica is home to a wide variety of organisms. The arctic food web often encompasses animals such as penguins, sea lions, leopard seals, and even killer whales; however, it also hosts smaller examples such as krill, phytoplankton, and even certain kinds of fish unique to the area. The Arctic's cold ocean currents drive the global ocean circulation system, where warm water from the tropics falls to the polar regions, cool down yet again and begin to rise. This process is seen globally and heavily relies on the freezing waters of Antarctica.

Antarctic waters are overflowing with nutrients due to their long exposure to sunlight and year-round cold temperatures that prevent thermocline and allows for water to mix within the column. Through this, nutrients are upwelled from deeper ocean depths easier and allow for nutrient rich and highly productive waters. With this circulation of nutrient rich and high productivity waters, it spreads nutrients globally and can support other ocean basins.

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[2] Nutrient-rich waters from the Southern Ocean’s upwelling supply is responsible for three-quarters of the global ocean’s biological production Photo from "Upwelling in the Southern Ocean", Physics Today

Although invisible, Antarctica is also a leading home and developer of an important soil: permafrost. Permafrost is a soil type that retains organic plant matter as well as sand, gravel, and soil bound together by ice. Permafrost has great importance as under edges of the icy Antarctic tundra region also rely on the permafrost to allow the soil to be watertight. Through permafrost soil, it helps certain areas be less susceptible to droughts. Not only that, but permafrost is an enormous carbon sink that helps prevent harmful greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere.Through the albedo effect, Antarctica reflects is able to reflect up to 70% of incoming sunlight onto our Earth by utilizing ice sheets that cover the Southern Ocean for miles. By reflecting sunlight, it prevents Earth from absorbing more heat than necessary and regulates our global temperature to a level that we are able to live and prosper on. In general, the Arctics are a monumental carbon sink. Carbon sinks are areas that withhold a large volume of carbon dioxide. By withholding carbon it prevents it from being released which leads to further harm. In Antarctica, the glacials and ice sheets are considered some of the largest carbon sinks on our planet, further helping us regulate temperature. The enamoring polar region is also responsible for cooling our global temperatures. Without this, we could expect our temperatures to be so high that already warm regions, such as the tropics, would be unlivable. The Southern Ocean, which encompasses Antarctica, is a major heat sink and is able to absorb and redistribute heat absorbed around the globe. Without Antarctica, we would be unable to grow as many crops as we do now as well as not have as much drinking water since in one region alone, it encompasses 60% of our world’s freshwater reserve. Although it seems impossible, Antarctica also serves our planet in a cultural aspect. Multitudes of day-long tours are taken in helicopters to explore the Antarctic region, intaking the gorgeous views it can provide.

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[3] Research Settlements in AntarcticaAttribution: By Teetaweepo - COMNAP, CC BY-SA 3.0,

A specialty of Antarctica is the lack of permanent human habitation, however, there are permanent settlements that scientists use to travel and study Antarctica as a whole. Through understanding the icy region of Antarctica, it helps us understand worldwide processes that allow living life forms to inhabit Earth.

How Humans and Biodiversity Depends on Antarctica

The waters of Antarctica are home to various organisms that all play a part in the lives of one another. Due to this dependency on one another to live, changes in the climate have drastic effects on the biodiversity in Antarctic waters and can create a chain reaction in the community when change occurs. Krill are crustaceans and a keystone species of the Antarctic. A keystone species is an organism that is the backbone for the diets or survival of many other organisms.

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[5] A photo of Euphausia superba, an Antarctic krill species. Images taken onboard RRS James Clark Ross cruise JR230 (benthic pelagic coupling cruise).

However, krill populations have declined. Approximately 80% of the population has been lost since the 1970s, as this decline continues there’s an increasingly greater chance for those that depend on krill to start declining too. If krill are decreasing, what are they getting replaced by? Krill inhabit the same community as salps, which are organisms with no natural predators in the Antarctic. Consequently, as the krill population decreases and the salp population disperses across the continental shelf where krill previously roamed, an imbalance in the food web is created. Penguins, which are predators that feed on krill, would be met with insufficient prey, likely leading to a decrease in the penguin population. However, krill aren’t the only keystone species in decline. The Antarctic silverfish, another key forage fish species found to be affected by warming waters and habitat loss from the melting of sea ice, is also declining [6]. Brighter and warmer waters under the Antarctic Ice Sheet are also proving to change the composition of phytoplankton, with cryptophytes, a type of algae, dominating diatoms [7].

Not only is the food web changing, so is the ocean itself. Ice-bergs and ice in general are entirely composed of freshwater, meaning that as they melt, the salinity of the water will dilute. Global warming has also caused them to melt at rapid rates, making the effects even more drastic. What are these effects? Our oceans currents could face changes as well as some organisms that have adapted to the salinity of the water. What has just been discussed is only the tip of the iceberg, pun unintended, when it comes to the effects global warming will have and are having on humans, biodiversity, and climate systems. More research is necessary to understand the effects a warming climate will have on life on Antarctica and the globe, but it is clear that they will be devastating if swift and competent actions are not taken.

Other Antarctic Effects of Climate Change and their Human Cost

Antarctica is a major regulator of Earth’s climate. The Antarctic Ice Sheet, which spans almost 14 million square kilometers, reflects up to 90% of incoming solar radiation in certain places [8, 9]. Ice is a surface with high albedo, or ability to reflect sunlight. So, the Antarctic Ice Sheet is responsible for much of the cooling of Earth’s climate. As global temperatures rise, however, the Antarctic Ice Sheet will melt, decreasing its surface area and cooling power, causing global temperatures to increase, resulting in a positive feedback loop in which the Earth heats dramatically. Additionally, due to Antarctica’s geography, the Southern Ocean is an exceptional heat sink. It is responsible for 60-90% of heat uptake of global oceans, as there is a great temperature difference between the water and the air above it. Under a warming climate, depending on complex climate system factors, the efficacy of heat uptake will either decrease, or the Southern Ocean will continue to warm [10]. Where warming oceans meet the Antarctic Ice Sheet, they melt its ice shelves, or floating glaciers, causing sea level rise. It is projected that collapsing ice shelves could lead to several feet of sea level rise by 2100 [12].

By mid-century, it is estimated that sea level rise will cause about $1 trillion in damage and that up to 800 million people living in hundreds of cities will be at risk of flooding, storm surges, and other disasters [13]. The devastation doesn’t end there. Decrease in the volume of the Antarctic Ice Sheet will also decrease its ability to insulate ocean waters from the cool air, stressing the algae that live on it and the krill that feed on those algae and live in those waters.
As previously stated, permafrost is a layer of soil, rocks, sediment, and decomposed organic matter that is cemented together by ice. Permafrost is typically found beneath an “active layer” of soil that melts and freezes seasonally, but permafrost, by definition, is permanently frozen. Permanently frozen, that is, unless a massive increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions causes intense global warming, like right now. Now, this permafrost, which is most commonly found in circumpolar regions of the northern hemisphere (but is also present in the Antarctic), like Siberia, Alaska, and northern Canada, is warming at an alarming overall rate of 0.6°F per decade [14]. This has far reaching consequences. Perhaps the most impactful result of permafrost thaw is the release of massive amounts of methane and carbon into the atmosphere, causing a wide scale warming effect. It is thought that the decomposed organic matter in permafrost could be storing double the amount of carbon currently in the atmosphere [15]. Another consequence of the melting of permafrost is disruption to many communities and peoples who live on permafrost. The lifestyles, food security, customs, and homes of indigenous communities of the Arctic are already being severely threatened by permafrost thaw, and many of their ancestral lands and burial grounds have already been washed away. For example, the custom of making ice cellars, or storing food in frozen ground, is becoming ineffective as the food is now at risk of rotting [16]. This threatens the food stocks of countless communities. With rivers and lakes that don’t freeze anymore, new bodies of water appearing, craters developing, and land becoming destabilized, hunters and herders aren’t sure of what routes are safe to take anymore [17]. Massive craters, like the Batagaika Crater in Siberia, are appearing and expanding as a result of layers of soil and ice collapsing in on themselves. Similarly, landslides are occurring in cities built on permafrost, like Yakutsk in Russia, causing the destruction of homes and buildings and the displacement of many people [18].

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[19] Melting permafrost creates craters in the Arctic. Photo by David Olefeldt

One more effect of permafrost thaw that is already being seen is the reemergence of centuries-old viruses and bacteria. Permafrost can harbor viruses and bacteria that have plagued the past, and when it melts, it can leak into groundwater and kill countless people and animals. This was seen happening in 2016 in Salekhard, when an anthrax outbreak hospitalized dozens of nomadic herders and killed a young boy [20].

What is Being Done and What Needs to be Done

Recent research has found that thawing permafrost could trigger massive microbial activity which would produce extreme amounts of carbon dioxide and methane [21]. The Alaska Peatland Experiment, Next-Generation Ecosystem Experiment, and the Center for Permafrost are just a few projects that are continuing to explore the possibilities of such occurrences.

Much of inland Antarctica lacks significant records to investigate recent climate change in the region, so more remote sensing projects are needed there.

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[22] Aerial view of melting glaciers in GreenlandPhoto attribution: Wollwerth/Depositphotos

Additionally, lack of on-the-ground measurements in some glacial regions means there is much room for improvement in climate models and their relationship to glacial melting. The recent breakthroughs regarding climate change and its effect on Antarctica seems irreversible and can lead to a pessimistic view, however, with global efforts we could reduce these tragedies. Simple things every person can do, such as reducing the use of plastic in favor of reusable materials, can help reduce greenhouse emissions. By using less plastic, we reduce the amount of carbon emitted into the air through manufacturing and the burnings of it. To help reduce the effects of climate change, contributing in community events such as cleanups, recycling, or practicing composting rather than throwing everything away can greatly reduce trash in the area and can help reduce carbon emissions. Large-scale efforts are also necessary to protect our climate. New studies show that swapping to 100% clean energy processes, such as wind or solar energy, is completely viable and not unachievable. Although national and international cooperation and legislation is critical to avoiding a climate catastrophe, individual efforts certainly can help mitigate the effects of a warming world. Why not start helping now, before it’s too late?


🎓Irena McNaughton

Irena is a student attending UCSD Research Scholars Fall 2022 Introduction to Marine Science course. She doesn’t remember a time when she wasn’t fascinated by some aspect of marine environments, and distinctly remembers being seven years old and obsessed by a book about dolphins and their remarkable behaviors (specifically sleeping with one eye open!). She is passionate about chemistry and molecular biology and is constantly learning more about those topics. Outside of academics, she loves hiking, horse riding, and baking.

🎓Lyrah McInnis

Lyrah is a student attending UCSD Research Scholars Fall 2022 Introduction to Marine Science course.

🎓Mikayla Mariano

Mikayla is a student attending UCSD Research Scholars Fall 2022 Introduction to Marine Science course. Their earliest memory regarding marine biology was probably when they watched Octonauts as a child because it was fun learning about the more unique animals of the ocean. She strives to be a veterinarian that specializes in marine life when she grows up. Her hobbies are always changing but she has always found joy in music, skating, and making drinks.


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