Choosing the future of Antarctica

Abstract

We present two narratives on the future of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, from the perspective of an observer looking back from 2070. In the first scenario, greenhouse gas emissions remained unchecked, the climate continued to warm, and the policy response was ineffective; this had large ramifications in Antarctica and the Southern Ocean, with worldwide impacts. In the second scenario, ambitious action was taken to limit greenhouse gas emissions and to establish policies that reduced anthropogenic pressure on the environment, slowing the rate of change in Antarctica. Choices made in the next decade will determine what trajectory is realized.

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Fig. 1: Schematic summary of impacts on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in 2070, under a ‘high emissions/low action’ scenario.
Fig. 2: Antarctica and the Southern Ocean in 2070, under ‘low emissions/high action’ (left) and ‘high emissions/low action’ (right) scenarios.

Change history

  • 17 July 2018

    On page 234 of this Perspective, ‘50% decrease’ has been corrected online to ‘50% increase’ in the sentence “The pH of surface waters south of 60° S decreased by 0.2 between 2017 and 2070, equivalent to a 50% increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions since the pre-industrial period1.”

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Acknowledgements

This work arose from a panel of Muse Fellows organised as part of a ‘horizon scan’ by the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research. We acknowledge the contribution of C. Kennicutt, who conceived and led the horizon scan. We also acknowledge the Tinker Foundation for their support of the Tinker–Muse Prize for Science and Policy in Antarctica. J. Matthews and L. Bell drafted the figures. S.R.R. was supported by the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) programme through the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems CRC, the National Environmental Science Program, and the Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research (a partnership between CSIRO and the Qingdao National Laboratory for Marine Research). S.L.C. was supported by the Australian Antarctic Science Program. M.H.E. was supported by the Australian Research Council. V.M.D. acknowledges support from Institut Paul Emile Victor and Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ASUMA project number ANR-14-CE01-0001). T.R.N. was supported by a New Zealand Antarctic Research Institute grant and a Royal Society of New Zealand James Cook Fellowship. M.J.S. acknowledges support from the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the British Council. J.C.X. was supported by the Foundation for Science and Technology Investigator programme (IF/00616/2013) and the MARE strategic programme (MARE-UID/MAR/04292/2013). R.M.D. was supported by the NSF under award ICER 1664013, and NASA’s Sea Level Rise Program.

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Nature thanks D. Ainley, K. Dodds and J. Lenaerts for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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S.R.R. conceived the retrospective narrative approach as a vehicle to highlight the dependence of the future of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean on choices made today. S.R.R. and S.L.C. wrote the initial draft. S.R.R. coordinated the drafting of the paper and developed the concept for the figures. All authors contributed to the discussion of ideas and the writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to S. R. Rintoul.

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S.L.C. is President of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

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Rintoul, S.R., Chown, S.L., DeConto, R.M. et al. Choosing the future of Antarctica. Nature 558, 233–241 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-018-0173-4

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