Will Antarctica Ever Be Habitable?
Antarctica is a frigid, inhospitable place, with average winter temperatures dropping to minus 56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 49 degrees Celsius), winds reaching 200 mph (321 km/h), and just 6.5 inches (166 millimeters) of annual precipitation. It’s no surprise, then, that Earth’s southernmost continent is also the least populated, with only a handful of scientists conducting research there and no permanent residents.
But, given technological progress and the changing climate, could that ever change? Shall Antarctica ever supported the kind of permanent human settlements seen elsewhere on Earth?
While a select group of invasive plant and animal species are already moving to a warming Antarctica, humans aren’t on that list yet, and probably won’t be until the next century. Partly because the current climate and terrain do not sustain a range of biodiversity for crops or animals for food.
Another obstacle is Antarctica’s remote location. While the environment is far from comfortable, it’s not much different from some places in the Arctic — such as Greenland, Iceland, and higher latitudes of Norway, Russia, Canada, and Alaska in the United States — that support permanent residents. If the weather was the only problem people could stand a chance there in the long run, Steven Chown (opens in new tab), a professor of biological sciences at Monash University in Australia told Live Science. But the geographic isolation means that these facilities are only maintained by importing food and other goods.
Some, but not all, research stations are currently supported by renewable energy from wind turbines and solar panels. Building a grid across the continent would mean building over an ice sheet, which is subject to change due to global warming. An electricity grid would not be necessary if all the stations there used mainly solar and wind energy, while advances in battery technology could be used to get through the dark winter months, Julie Brigham-Grette (opens in new tab)professor of quaternary/glacial geology and arctic paleoenvironments at the University of Massachusetts, told Live Science in an email.
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The climate of Antarctica: the distant past and the near future
The frozen continent may not be equipped for permanent residents at this time. But was the climate once hospitable, and will it be hospitable in the future, given global warming?
“Based on the fossil record, it used to have a climate that was perfect for forests and… dinosaursChown told Live Science. About 100 million years ago, Antarctica supported well-developed vegetation, substantial forests and a range of organisms, such as conifers, ferns and flowering plants known as angiosperms. In 2021, charcoal remains were found on James Ross Island – part of the Antarctic Peninsula under South America – provided evidence that: forest fires burned forests there during the late Cretaceous, between 100 million and 66 million years ago.
The Earth’s climate changes over hundreds of millions of years, cycling between cooler ice ages and warmer interglacial periods. To understand what Antarctica’s climate might look like in the future, paleoclimatologists look to the distant past. By studying the sediment layers in the Ross Ice Shelf, a team of researchers, including Brigham-Grette, found that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has collapsed and regrowth several times. Such collapse and regrowth likely correlate with extremely warm interglacial periods, Brigham-Grette said, and these climate fluctuations go hand in hand with changes in Earth’s atmosphere, including rising and falling levels of carbon dioxide.
While these changes have historically taken place over hundreds of thousands of years, greenhouse gas emissions are now changing the Earth’s climate at an unprecedented rate. If we do not achieve net-zero emissions by 2040, climate change “will be the biggest driver of change to Antarctica,” Chown said. To imagine the kind of environment that could develop if temperatures continue to rise, Chown recommended looking at the sub-Antarctic islands and the ecology of the southernmost parts of South America.
The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the highest latitudes, or northernmost parts of the continent, stretching from the Antarctic Circle toward South America. Ushuaia, Argentina is only 1,095 kilometers away. As global average temperatures rise, the climate in the Antarctic Peninsula will change, likely making it resemble the southernmost parts of South America, or islands in the seas nearby, Chown said.
The Antarctic Peninsula is currently home to native grasses, a few insects, migratory birds and marine mammals. With a warming climate, we’ll likely see a greater variety of grasses and flowers, Chown said. If this trend continues, higher temperatures and more rain will encourage plant growth in the near future, Chown said. Along with invasive species accidentally transported there by humans, more plants can settle there. However, due to the cold temperatures, it is unlikely that we will see forests there any time soon. Chown and Brigham-Grette agreed that Antarctica is unlikely to support crops or livestock for the next century. All in all, it is unlikely that we will be able to create permanent human settlements there in the near future, supported by agriculture or ranching.
However, the Antarctic climate is already changing. Chown said the rise in global average temperatures is changing the continent’s ecology. poa annuaBluegrass, a bluegrass found in temperate cities such as Cape Town, South Africa and Melbourne, Australia, has been found in Antarctica, he said. even a Gentoo penguin colony spotted in Antarctica early 2022 is cause for concern, as these non-ice-loving birds typically live on sub-Antarctic islands and are likely to venture south only as climate change warms the southernmost continent.
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Melting ice caps
Aside from the peninsula, most of the continent is an ice sheet, several kilometers thick in places. Climate modeling predicts large growth in the ice-free area. But, according to Chown, “on the highest areas where only the mountain peaks protrude…it’s unlikely we’ll see anything change by, say, 2100.”
The melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet and the resulting rise in sea levels will change not only the geography of Antarctica, but the climate of our entire planet. “Most of West Antarctica is below sea level,” but rising sea levels would also elevate small rocky islands there, rather than completely engulf them. “Because we lose the ice shelves in the future, making sure the settlements are above sea level will be a problem,” Brigham-Grette said.
Looking beyond 2100, rising temperatures and sea levels are likely to accelerate the migration of climate refugees. Humans may attempt to colonize Antarctica if the cooler climate remains more hospitable than the warmer parts of the world. Even without growing crops, melting sea ice could mean people in the area are trying to fish.
But despite our efforts to explore and study Earth’s roughest, most inhospitable continent, it’s unlikely we’ll have Antarctica any time soon.