The continent of Antarctica is a fragile indicator of global climate change. It is here that the effects of global warming are most visible. The protection of the continent is also vital for the future stability of the planet. It is alarming therefore that recent research on the continent suggests a rapid degeneration in ice shelves, an increase in the regions average temperatures, and a disruption in its ecological stability.
One such change was the rapid break up and disintegration of the Larsen B ice shelf on the continents peninsula. In 2002 the 220m thick (720 feet) ice shelf unexpectedly lost about 3,250 km2 of ice into the ocean over a 35 day period. The speed and magnitude of the event was a shock to researchers and was widely taken as an indication of the massive and unpredictable effects which global warming is having. In total the all shelf has been reduced by about 60% since 1995. This loss is thought to have been speeded by large amounts of summer melt-water running down crevasses in the ice shelf. In all the continents seven ice shelves have declined by about 13,500 km2 since 1974.
One of the unexpected effects of this ice shelf disintegration has been that glaciers, which were previously slowed by the ice shelves themselves, are now feeding directly into the ocean. This extra water is not expected to have a significant effect on sea levels but could affect the areas ecological balance as well as contributing to climate change. Recently researchers have noted a decline in krill levels in the area. These previously abundant organisms are the basis for almost all marine food chains and a reduction in their numbers could therefore have very serious ramifications for the entire planet.
Beyond these factors a disruption in the stability of the Polar Regions will have very serious effects on global climate conditions. At present these areas act to maintain weather patterns. Their instability therefore not only causes instability in global climates, but also contributes to more extreme weather such as unexpected flooding, prolonged droughts, more intense and frequent tropical storms, and more extreme temperatures.
Unfortunately for most people, the realities of climate change seem remote and are often imperceptible. There is increasing consensus though not only on the importance of preserving the Polar Regions, but also on the urgency with which this needs to be achieved. Global warming has already seriously decreased the earth's ability to regulate itself which means attempts to salvage the situation must be even more intense. These efforts will need to be supported by both governments and individuals.