The Fragility of Antarctica


by Claire Christian

The collapse of the Larsen C ice-shelf is a reminder that Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are very fragile environments, with the land, waters and marine life increasingly impacted by the effects of climate change. There are differing views on the specific cause of the Larsen C ice-shelf collapse, but there is no doubt that greater protection for the Southern Ocean is needed. A network of marine protected areas (MPAs) is a scientifically proven mechanism to increase the resilience of ecosystems affected by climate change.

Climate change is the biggest environmental threat to our planet and we are already seeing the effects on our oceans and marine life across the globe. Some of the fastest warming areas on the planet are in Antarctica, and iconic species such as penguins are already experiencing negative impacts.

NASA Earth Observatory images by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey

As ice shelves collapse the glaciers behind them retreat more quickly, causing further sea-level rise. These changes will have dramatic consequences for global sea level rise and are likely to have negative impacts on Antarctic ecosystems and species.


Nearly a decade ago members of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), the body responsible for the conservation of Antarctic waters, agreed to create a network of MPAs. The designation of the Ross Sea MPA last year was the first of them to be put in place. More are urgently needed. Additional consideration must also be given to building a network that will reduce the impact of climate change and build resilience to it. CCAMLR Members also must ensure that it has adequately accounted for climate change impacts in all of its decision-making, including when setting catch limits for fisheries.

A proposal from Australia, France and the EU to create a second MPA, known as the East Antarctic Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (EARSMPA), still needs to be strengthened, but with the right political investment it could be the next step toward an effective network of protection for this vulnerable environment.

Weddell Seal


2020 will be the bicentenary of the discovery of Antarctica. We urge all CCAMLR Member countries to work toward the bicentenary by realising their 2009 commitment to a network of MPAs, starting with the designating the EARSMPA at the annual meeting in October, followed by the Weddell Sea and Antarctic Peninsula by 2020.



Claire Christian is the executive director of the Antarctic & Southern Ocean Coalition




ASOC is the only non-governmental organization working full time to preserve the Antarctic continent and its surrounding Southern Ocean. A coalition of over 30 NGOs interested in Antarctic environmental protection, ASOC represents the environmental community at Antarctic governance meetings and works to promote important Antarctic conservation goals.