Shutdown the meltdown

Who cares about Antarctica? Between failed marine reserves, rogue icebergs, the ratcheting down of federal science funding, and research stalled by the US government shutdown in October, the Antarctic meltdown is something of a hard case. On one hand, the international delegation of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCALMR) has been rumbling about the creation of a massive ocean sanctuary—what would be the largest in the world—which seems like progress. At the very least, the various reserve proposals by the US, New Zealand, Australia, France and others in the EU indicate rising awareness and political salience about “the last intact ocean ecosystem on Earth.” I suppose there’s the chance that underlying motives for its creation could be geopolitical or economic—a move to thwart anti-sovereignty claims or the fishery interests of other nations and bulwark their own competitiveness, but something tells me there’s genuine concern about the ecological pressures and risks to biodiversity at the heart of the marine reserve ideas.

Cape Denison--photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

Cape Denison–photo courtesy of Pauline Askin/Reuters

On the other hand, the CCALMR has also failed to create the sanctuary three times in the past year because the commission requires unanimity in decision-making. In particular, Russia, Ukraine, (and now China) have repeatedly blocked the proposals to protect their own fishing interests in the Southern Ocean, presented under the guise of concern for legal technicality. Disappointing, to be sure. But it shows that Antarctica is more than just a blip on the political radar, even if the proposed reserve hasn’t managed to pass.

Speaking of radar—we may recall that NASA discovered an 18 mile crack in the Pine Island Glacier in 2011. Upon its discovery, scientists speculated that eventually the crack might cause a glacier to break off. In July of this year, the prediction came true. Images from the TerraSAR-X satellite of the German Space Agency reported that, indeed, a city-sized iceberg had separated from the Pine Island Glacier. At the time, however, it was basically being kept in place by other sea ice.

Pine Island Crack--Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

Pine Island Crack–Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team

But not anymore.

Similar in size to Manhattan, the separated iceberg has made its way out of its icy entrapments and is floating out to sea. Sounds benign enough, but it’s actually a problem—on top of the disposition shared by many that the slow degradation of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is itself lamentable. The problem at hand, however, is an instrumental one. The iceberg is headed for the space between Antarctica and Cape Horn on the southern-most tip of Chile, which is an especially trafficked international shipping lane.

Pine Island Rift--image courtesy of NASA

CLICK ME FOR ANIMATION! Pine Island Rift–GIF courtesy of the German Aerospace Center

The iceberg could stick around for more than a year before it dissipates, and if it does move through Drake’s Passage and end up in the shipping lane it could cause some serious obstructions to trade and transportation—or at least pose complications. It’s unclear what exactly could be done about the new glaciers other than circumvention, so perhaps the situation is better framed as a condition rather than a problem—but at least it’s a temporary one at that. Nevertheless, now that Antarctica and Antarctic issues are verging into the realm of economics and international trade its relative political importance may elevate. To that effect, a team of UK researchers recently received and emergency grant to track and study the iceberg’s movement.

Drake's Passage--image courtesy of www.worldatlas.com

Drake’s Passage–image courtesy of http://www.worldatlas.com

Which brings me to another point—NSF funding, the government shutdown, and Antarctic research, which are especially relevant here at CU-Boulder since we have a legacy and prospect of research in Antarctica.

I talked about the state of federal funding for academic research at some length in Congress’ assault on knowledge. In essence, folks like James Inhofe and Lamar Smith are doing their best to restructure and minimize the federal budget for research and allocation priorities. Unless research strictly pertains to national security or will yield demonstrable economic benefit, apparently, by their account, it’s not worth funding. As far as Antarctic research goes, the economic benefits aren’t necessarily obvious, nor does it straightforwardly improve national security—which of course erroneously assumes that better understanding complex ecosystems and ubiquitous issues like the history of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations through ice cores and other paleontological records through programs like the WISSARD drilling project don’t strengthen national security, make us better off through new knowledge, or help us figure out what sorts of adaption measures will be necessary as the climate changes. Hogwash. Be that as it may, by new funding standards, it seems likely that funding for Antarctic research may become harder to come by.

Image courtesy of www.theguardian.com

Image courtesy of http://www.theguardian.com

What’s more, the partial government shutdown in October didn’t help. Of course the federal shutdown didn’t help anything, but—aside from national parks and furloughed federal workers—of particular relevance here, the budgetary holds ups stifled funding for the US Antarctic Program and its three field stations, to which a team of CU researchers had been planning to travel in late October (the beginning of summer in Antarctica). Perhaps not surprisingly, the research timetable is quite sensitive and so because of the shutdown and lingering budgetary priority questions, much of the Antarctic research planned for this year has been deferred. In a “Dear Colleague” letter, the NSF informed hopeful researchers from CU Boulder, UC Santa Cruz, UT Austin, and other institutions alike poised and expecting to head south, that, as they feared, they’d have to wait to embark on their icy adventures. As the NYT put it, the ripples of the government shutdown made it all the way to the end of the Earth. Well done, obstinate, uncompromising, and unreasonable members of Congress who shall here remain nameless—well done. In any case, we should all keep an eye on this. And we should all care about Antarctica.

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Antarctic loss and damage

November 11th marked the beginning of the annual United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—this year held in Warsaw. Six major components generally comprise the UNFCCC agenda, but two main pillars get the most attention: mitigation and adaptation. The focus on mitigation means nations—developed and developing (naturally there is some contention between rich and poor nations here)—reducing their greenhouse gas emissions to curb the intensity of climate change. As part of the Cancun Agreements, countries agreed to target a reduction in GHG emissions sufficient to keep global temperature increases within 2°C. An ambitious goal, perhaps overly so, to say the least. Adaptation, on the other hand, speaks to the idea that some degree of climate change is inevitable at this point and that nations need to make plans to deal with long-term impacts like sea level rise on behalf of vulnerable people and areas.

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw--photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

UNFCCC meeting at Warsaw–photo courtesy of the UNFCCC

Subsumed by the adaptation pillar, the Warsaw Conference has largely centered on the notion of “loss and damage.” In essence, loss and damage related to climate change means losses of life, territory, economic prosperity, climatic stability and predictability, biodiversity etc., and damages related to weather events like Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines and onset of sea level rise. Some analysts have suggested that loss and damage deserves to be considered a third pillar all its own next to mitigation and adaptation.

In pragmatic terms, discussion of loss and damage ultimately becomes a discussion of culpability, liability, responsibility, and compensation. Sticky territory to be sure. Money politics surrounding loss and damage is contentious at best. No one wants to pay more than their fair share, but few agree on how to determine what shares are “fair.” In large part, the divergence is one between the relative importance of cumulative v. annual GHG emissions, and which should receive more emphasis in establishing financial obligations—basically the same question that stopped the US from signing the Kyoto Protocol. In either case the debate revolves around two major players—the United States (the largest cumulative GHG emitter by far) and China (now the largest annual GHG emitter). Obviously other countries (Europe and the other BRIC nations) have their hands in this issue as well, but the US and China are the big two.

So loss and damage—clearly a salient issue. Climate change means unprecedented losses and damages. When it comes to nations, determining relative interests are somewhat intuitive. Everyone has, albeit varying, national interests in addressing climate change for domestic reasons, and no one wants to pay more than their fair share—no one likes the idea of other countries freeloading on their mitigation efforts. But, clearly, climate change isn’t just a domestic issue. Climate change entails a slew of international losses and damages involving global commons—the oceans and Antarctica, for example—which don’t have straightforward national borders to delineate interest groups and stakeholders. Indeed, Antarctica has plenty to lose and damage to incur, but lacks the domestic interest element, strictly speaking. The Antarctic meltdown has, for the most part, only been discussed indirectly in terms of sea level rise.

Antarctic territory map--photo courtesy of DiscoveringAntarctica.org.uk

Antarctic territory map–photo courtesy of DiscoveringAntarctica.org.uk

But Antarctica has more going on than just melting glaciers, break-away icebergs, and contributions to sea level rise. I’m thinking, for instance, about changes in biodiversity we can expect to see as ecological conditions shift on and around the continent and Southern Ocean. Between rising atmospheric temperatures, ocean acidification, and a warming Southern Ocean, the ~16,000 species known to inhabit Antarctic itself or the waters surrounding it have some notable challenges ahead—but no national  interest, strictly speaking, to represent them at the UNFCCC. In particular, let’s consider some charismatic mega-fauna like the endangered Southern Elephant Seal and the variety of endangered whales that live on and near Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Sealing and whaling (especially whaling) have been—and still are, sadly—problems for these populations, and climate change coupled with habitat loss and changes in ocean temperatures and acidity will only increase their stressors. If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts, then Southern Elephant Seals lose breeding grounds, and whales and seals alike will need to adapt to changing oceanic conditions. So what’s to be done on their behalf? While Antarctic interests are represented at the UNFCCC by non-governmental organization (NGO) observers, Antarctica doesn’t exactly have its own seat at the table.

Southern Elephant Seal--photo courtesy of Arkive.org and Peter Bassett

Southern Elephant Seal–photo courtesy of Arkive.org and Peter Bassett

Luckily, Antarctica will benefit from mitigation efforts regardless of whether it’s afforded explicit attention or not—but ethically speaking, because improvements to Antarctica’s lot are, in a mitigative sense, coincidental or happenstantial, this may be unsatisfying. And few—perhaps with the exception of some researchers and activists—worry about Antarctic adaptation. So, again, what’s to be done to hedge against Antarctic loss and damage?

To this point, aside from UNFCCC action, there was a recent attempt by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR)—another fantastic acronym for an appropriately instrumentalist name—to create the world’s largest ocean sanctuary around Antarctica, totaling somewhere between 1.6 and 1.9 million square kilometers.

Penguins in the Ross Sea--photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Penguins in the Ross Sea–photo courtesy of The Guardian and John Weller

Unfortunately, Russian and Ukranian representatives questioned the authority of the CCAMLR to declare such a sanctuary, and, in turn, blocked its establishment, undermining what political good will may have existed in this context. Disappointing, to be sure, but in a sense this objection is just a business-as-usual exercise of power given the structure of the Antarctic Treaty System, which—we can only assume is to avoid a sort of Aristotelian tyranny of the majority—demands that international decisions pertaining to Antarctica be made unanimously. So we probably won’t see the creation of an Antarctic Marine Reserve any time soon. While the sanctuary may not have been proposed with specific regard to climate change, it would have been progress regarding Antarctic loss and damage nonetheless. But so much for that.

Humpback whale breach--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Humpback whale breach–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Sadly, the failed marine reserve also means a failed way to halt whaling in the Southern Ocean. Historically, whaling near Antarctica has been atrocious. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union (among others) was responsible for the disappearance of more than 180,000 whales. 180 thousand. But as of ~27 years ago commercial whaling was declared illegal by the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that the ban put a stop to all whaling. Yes—even in this day and age—there are still whalers out there. What’s even more surprising is that it’s technically  legal. Japan was granted a moratorium from the prohibition in order to do scientific research that involves whaling. Whaling for science! Makes sense, right? Earth First! and Greenpeace eco-activists aren’t the only ones who find this repugnant. Toward protecting against Antarctic biodiversity loss, in 2010 Australia took Japan to court at the Hague—the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Netherlands—in order to challenge the validity of Japan’s “scientific research,” which, by Japan’s argument, requires killing whales. Japan has taken more than 10,000 whales from the Southern Ocean since 1988.

Japanese whaling ship--photo courtesy of The Japan Times

Japanese whaling ship–photo courtesy of The Japan Times

The Hague should pass down its judgment within the next few months, so at that point we’ll see what justice holds for whaling. Perhaps on the pessimistic side of legal analysis, by Dr. Rowan Hooper’s reading, the Australian case may be emotionally compelling, but Japan may have a stronger legal argument to uphold their exception from the IWC’s prohibition.

Suffice to say, between climate change, habitat loss, warming water, ocean acidification, and whaling—there are plenty reasons to be concerned about Antarctic loss and damage. The question, then, is what should and what will be done about it moving forward. Let’s get it together humans.