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American Association for the Advancement of Science
Changing productivity in Antarctica
Near the South Pole of the globe, in Antarctica, researchers have noticed some serious changes in the ice, the water, the clouds, and even the animals. In an area known as the Western Antarctic Peninsula (or WAP), they say that a dramatic loss of ice-cover has also led to major shifts in animal activity – starting with plankton and including penguins.
Martin Montes-Hugo and a group of researchers studied 30 years of satellite data and field experiments, and now describe the situation at the WAP in great detail. They say that patterns of "biological productivity," or the ways in which animals convert carbon dioxide to useful elements like carbon and oxygen, have changed a lot near this WAP in the past few decades.
The researchers measured levels of chlorophyll a, which is a good indicator of this biological productivity, and saw that in the northern part of the WAP, productivity has decreased. But, in the south, the researchers say that productivity has increased.
With that in mind, Montes-Hugo and his team suggest that the disappearing ice-cover in the north has been followed by increased clouds in the sky. More clouds in the sky has meant that less sunlight has been reaching the water, and because of that, the main biological producers (like plankton) have not been very productive.
But, in the southern part of the WAP, the ice-cover is still solid, so the skies have stayed clearer for longer. With no clouds in the sky, plankton in the south has been very productive. The researchers also say that the Antarctic Current has become stronger recently, which has brought more nutrients to the southern part.
Larger animals like penguins seem to be moving around too, trying to adapt to the shifting areas of plankton, nutrients, and biological productivity.
These important findings highlight the importance of understanding the combination of many factors – from atmosphere to ice – that affect the whole WAP ecosystem. With a better understanding of how all these factors work together, researchers could address these issues of environmental change in the future.