Antarctica is a unique continent: remote, hostile and pristine, which since 1959 has been conceived through the signing of the Antarctic Treaty as a continent dedicated to peace and science. Its unique characteristics and its effect on the Earth’s climate and oceans make Antarctica a particularly relevant area for scientific research.
Thanks to its great extension covered by white ice, this continent reflects between 80% and 90% of the solar radiation it receives (phenomenon called albedo). A natural process of positive ice-albedo feedback occurs (ice increases the albedo, which increases the reflectance of solar radiation, decreasing the temperature and thus increasing the coverage/formation of ice), which is why Antarctica is usually called “the Earth’s refrigerator”.
At the same time, this ice, more than four kilometres thick, constitutes the largest reserve of fresh water on the planet and contains a unique record of what our planet’s climate was like several thousand years ago, making Antarctica a key continent for understanding how the planet works and what our impact on it is.
In spite of being surrounded and isolated by the most intense current in the world, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the white continent is a fundamental pillar in the functioning of the Thermohaline Circulation. The Southern Ocean, mainly the Weddell Sea, is an area of formation of very dense water masses (product of changes in temperature and salinity) that submerge in the depths and circulate along the bottom towards the north. This large-scale circulation plays an important role in the net heat flow from the tropical regions to the polar regions, as well as in the influence on the Earth’s climate, as water masses transport both energy (in the form of heat) and matter (solids, dissolved substances and gases) around the globe. In the future scenario of global climate change, the melting of the polar ice will lead to an increase in the flow of fresh water, which will reduce the salinity and consequently the density of the water and its sinking capacity, significantly affecting the global circulation.
The Southern Ocean is one of the least altered and most productive marine ecosystems in the world, with a large number of species found nowhere else. The high productivity makes fishing very fruitful and therefore some more exploited species, such as Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) and Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), one of the most important species in the Southern Ocean. The Antarctic Krill is a fundamental link in the Antarctic food web as it serves as the main food source for more than 25% of the species that inhabit it, including penguins, seals, whales and many species of fish, making it the mainstay of some of the world’s main fisheries. In this sense, the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) has existed since 1980, with the aim of finding a balance between conservation and the rational exploitation of living resources.