November 2, 2022

Would sustainable exploitation of polar biomes leave us on thin ice?

Those lucky enough to have gazed upon the striking scene of our planet from space – or just googled ‘Earth from space’! – may have been surprised at just how much is covered by snow and ice. More than a fifth of the entire surface gleams shimmering white, creating around 102 million km2 of some truly exquisite ecosystems. And so, as one of kdm’s two resident marine biologists, and a keen environmentalist, what else could I do when BBC’s Frozen Planet II hit our living room screens than spend a day binge-watching the entire series? After re-watching it several times, I couldn’t help but contemplate some of the key messages voiced across the six-hour cinematic masterpiece.

A domino effect

The two largest polar biomes, the Arctic and Antarctic, play imperative roles for planetary health, predominantly climate regulation and stability. They both receive markedly less solar radiation compared to equatorial regions and reflect more of the sun’s heat away from Earth, creating a stark contrast in temperature between latitudes. This difference helps to regulate and stabilise the large air and ocean currents that control heat distribution around the globe. However, if these delicate systems become imbalanced, then the far-reaching knock-on effects could be devastating in an unpredictable way. Think of it like dominoes; a long and delicate set-up process collapses in seconds but not necessarily how you expect it to.

Too warm and unwelcome

We’ve now reached a position where we can better understand these frozen wildernesses, just in time for an alarming discovery to be made. We’re losing these environments faster than adaptive alterations and evolutionary adjustments can provide any form of resilience – a direct result of anthropogenic activities. And although these impacts are being felt more heavily in the Arctic – where temperatures have increased by two to three times the global average in the previous 50 years – climactic warming is threatening the stability of all frozen habitats.

The ‘S’ word – sustainable exploitation

It’s safe to say that the Arctic is receiving its fair share of international research, as well as government and media attention. This is partly because it’s experiencing some of the worst impacts of warming, but also due to the potential economic and ecological profits it offers. This vast area represents a massive opportunity for conservation ‘spillover’ and socio-economic gain, such as in ecotourism and for global trade. An open route through the Arctic, for example, could reduce shipping time from New York to Asia by up to 30 %. But this isn’t free of risk, and it comes with an estimated $1 trillion price tag to sustainably develop the required infrastructure, while simultaneously safeguarding the natural landscape, indigenous people, as well as wildlife and biodiversity.

A balanced view

The reality is that it may be unwise to ignore the benefits that come with responsible and sustainable development of these regions; we can work harmoniously with our planet to reap the benefits. But if sustainability is ignored, we could easily find ourselves with yet another instance – like deforestation in South America or urban sprawl in countless global cities – where failure has far-reaching ramifications.

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