The polar oceans
are currently "amongst the most rapidly changing environments on Earth," because of the ongoing and future threat
of climate change. That's bad news for many of the animals that live there and have evolved specifically to live in conditions that have been relatively constant for 4 million years. In that time period, glaciers have brought the most stress and change to habitat there; now, the biggest change agent is climate change.
Greenhouse gas emissions, ozone-depleting chemicals, the increase
in atmospheric carbon dioxide, the increase in wind and the warmer temperatures have all significantly altered the Southern Ocean
, also known as the Antarctic Ocean. There's been a rapid decline of sea ice
and ice shelves are collapsing. The glaciers are retreating. The sea is rising and warming, and is experiencing acidification
Krill, some clams, and humpback whales will be some of the biggest losers in the Antarctic region, the study said. The emperor penguin, the Adelie
penguin and the Chinstrap penguin face bleak futures, too.
But starfish, sea squirt and a variety of worms will benefit from climate change, according to the new study. The southern right whale and king penguins that feed on fish will likely gain the most from the decline in sea ice and will have more room to breed as the glaciers retreat.
Many of the animal losers, like certain breed of penguins, feed through sea ice, give birth on the sea ice, and use it to rest. Animals like the humpback whale that depend on food sources like the massive stocks of threatened krill are expected to do badly with climate change.
"With climate change there is a real urgency in our need to understand the impact of these changes on these animals," said co-author Simon Morley
, a scientist based at the British Antarctic Survey
in the UK.
Morley and his co-authors figured out who wins and loses, he said, by essentially taking the same approach researchers would use if they created an occupational health survey to look for risks in a workplace. Except, in this case, the workers wear feathers, scales or fur and they're not the type to complain about the temperature in their "office."
This approach has limitations, Morley said, because data is limited and the ecosystem is complex, so there could be problems for even the winners when this complex environment changes. But, he said, the work should give scientists a good baseline.
"We know the Earth is warming. We know humans are the major factor behind why global climate is changing so fast. We know that the rate of change in global climate is faster than the Earth has experienced in the last million years. In the face of this, we need to understand the vulnerabilities of animals and plants to climate change," Morley said. "How will life fare in the long term? Well, we need more data on more species."