Antarctica is melting! An iceberg the size of Chicago recently broke off of the Pine Island Glacier because of an enormous and growing crack in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And the Chicago-sized glacier is only the latest event in a recent trend of Antarctica’s glaciers melting.
Why this is happening is still something of a mystery—but a warming Southern Ocean eating at the ice from below and higher air temperatures from climate change melting it from the top-down are the main suspects. Whatever the cause, the Antarctic is melting—and we might be responsible, even if only in part. So what does, and what should, the Antarctic meltdown mean to us?
Should we see the Antarctic meltdown as yet another sign that the human footprint on Earth is out of control and must be stopped? On the contrary, if anthropogenic climate change is not at the root of Antarctica melting, it’s not so clear that we have a responsibility to intervene for its own sake—though intervention for humanity’s sake may be another story.
There are several implications of a melting Antarctica worth considering. Worthy concerns range from sea-level rise and the threat posed to human civilization, what Antarctica might mean to us as climate change intensifies, habitat and biodiversity loss, messy international politics over the governance of a global commons, the inherent value of wilderness, and the impacts of Antarctic melt on ocean ecology.
The issues raised above are too many and too complex to cover in a single post. So, this represents the inaugural installment of a six-part series I will be writing on the ethics, science, and policy questions surrounding the Antarctic meltdown.
The ethical elephant in the room is sea-level rise. If the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt, sea-level would rise somewhere between 16 and 23 feet. Coastal dwellers beware. Even if humans aren’t responsible for Antarctica’s recent trend of melting, outwardly we seem morally obliged to mitigate the Antarctic meltdown because of its disastrous consequences for humans living on coasts. But human interests aren’t necessarily the only concern. In any case—hold that thought. We’ll dive into the ethics of sea-level rise in a later piece.
Fresh water and climate change
What follows takes a look into what Antarctica might mean to us in context of freshwater scarcity—or rather, drought—-due to climate change. In a recent piece, “Our new hydroverlords,” I discussed some of the scary possibilities that could arise as a result of water scarcity due to climate change. With this fresh in my mind, I thought—what role does Antarctica play in this dialectic?
Consider: water is essential to life on Earth. While the marginal value of water is relatively small—a 20 oz. bottle of fresh water can cost less than a dollar—its total value is beyond measure—without water, life as we know it would come to an end. Disregarding the needs of the nonhuman world for the moment, we use water for drinking, agriculture, industry, recreation, etc. The list goes on.
Freshwater only makes up about 2.5% of the total water on Earth, and most of that—more than 99%—is trapped in the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets. Of that 99%, the Antarctic Ice Sheet contains roughly 30 million cubic kilometers of ice—and it has been that way for the past 40 million years. But this pristine and ancient reservoir is draining into the ocean.
Technically, Antarctica is a desert. Among several other places contending for record low annual precipitation, Antarctica is one of the harshest, highest deserts on the planet. But ice has been building up for millennia, so while scarce precipitation falls there each year, the ice is at least a mile thick in most places. So, if we even come close to the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s most severe drought prediction, we may start seeing the South Pole in a different light within the century.
Depending on how much desalination technology improves in the next 80 years or so, places with plentiful freshwater resources may get increasingly hard to come by. That’s not to suggest that governments or multinational companies should start shipping glacier fragments or piping melt water—or that this would be legal, feasible, cost efficient, or desirable—but as latitudes of livable precipitation press northward and southward, Antarctica may start looking more and more like prime real estate. With the human population climbing well beyond 7 billion and close to a billion people going without access to clean freshwater already, there are bound to be lots of hot, thirsty folks in the future.
Seven nations—Australia, Chile, Great Britain, Argentina, France, New Zealand, and Norway—have claimed territory in Antarctica by right of discovery and occupation, but the Antarctic Treaty System has peacefully suspended any future territorial claims. So long as the treaty is in place, these claims should neither expand nor diminish—nor should Antarctica become an object of international discord.
In short, no one “owns” Antarctica so no one can “buy” resources or property there like we typically think when it comes to land. But land is land and humans are, at the end of the day, just animals that will adapt to climate change however we can if things elsewhere get inhospitable enough.
Resource scarcity exacerbated by a climbing population and climate change could mean a new interest in extraction from the Antarctic. If humans are struggling with drought and the Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting anyway, shouldn’t we attempt to harvest that freshwater resource rather than let it slip into the ocean?
Changes in the Antarctic ice could also be seen as an opportunity for fossil fuels exploration and send the Southern Ocean the way of the Arctic.
In the most radical scenario, even multinational emigration, settlement, and urban development is possible. If things get warm enough from catastrophic climate change and the land beneath the ice sheet starts poking through, should humans become Antarctica’s first permanent mammalian terrestrial inhabitants? In spirit reminiscent of Westward Expansion, should we press forward—or rather, southward—into the wild?
Human presence in the Antarctic would represent a fundamental shift in Earth’s last wild ecosystem, as well as for geo-politics—and both are rife with ethical quandaries. If at some point our survival or the prevention and alleviation of human suffering depends upon Antarctic resources, then have we non-arbitrary justification for doing so? But barring abject, otherwise inescapable poverty, don’t we also have good reason to prefer to see the world’s last wilderness remain exactly that?
Human beings have been an exceptionally successful invasive species and could no doubt make life in Antarctica work, but the inherent value of preserving its natural condition may outweigh our disposition to view the nonhuman environment as a resource stock. Put a pin in that thought: we’ll consider the idea and value of wilderness again and in more depth in a later post.
So humans are resource hungry and need places to live—especially as the world population grows—but Antarctica isn’t exactly low-hanging fruit. If it comes to that, it’ll be a long time off. If such a day does arrive, something of an international governance fiasco might ensue. Antarctica could become the world’s next radical political experiment.
But not to worry, the Environmental Protection Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty currently prohibits development in Antarctica almost altogether (short of a few low-impact scientific research stations) in order to “preserve the intrinsic value of Antarctica.” In turn, some of these questions may be ethically rich but legally moot…for now.
However, a recent attempt to create a new Antarctic ocean sanctuary failed in an moment of international politicking—so perhaps we should take this as a sign that, like the climate, international norms of Antarctic governance are changing. Or is the failed sanctuary vote just business-as-usual? But hold that thought, yet again. We’ll get to that in one of the next installments of the Antarctic meltdown.
Seeing as Antarctica is one of the most, if not the most, inhospitable places on Earth, human occupation there does indeed seem a long time off. With the empty expanses such as those of the United States and Canada still available for settlement, it would seem more reasonable to inhabit these places first. The value in preserving a pristine environment such as Antarctica is priceless, and human settlement there would no doubt completely destroy the delicate balance of life found there. The organisms there have evolved to be highly specialized in this cold environment, without much adaptation to predators or competitors. The introduction of humans and everything they bring with them would completely change the Antarctic ecosystem. So from an ethical point of view, we most definitely should not settle there.
On the other hand, though, I will bring up two points. One, if climate change is truly happening at this rapid pace that has been observed in the last few decades, species will not be able to keep up with the rate of climate change. A warm Antarctica would not have the majority of the species it has at the moment, and therefore humans would be settling a desert that used to be pristine, but is most likely a barren one in the future. And two, it will rarely be argued that the life of a non-human species is worth more than the life of a human: if the survival, or at least well-being, of humans is dependent on us settling Antarctica, we most certainly will do it.
Since you speak of Antarctica as a pristine environment in this post, have you read about Lake Vostok, the subglacial lake there? It is sealed off completely from the outside world by the ice sheet that covers it, and the land that surrounds it. That is truly the last 100% pristine place in the world, as it is completely sealed off from human influences.