One of the first principles of high latitude ecosystems is that they are less complex than their low latitude cousins. That doesn’t make the antarctic and arctic systems “simple;” any ecosystem is complex. Just a little less complex.
In the antarctic, the staggering numbers of animals are supported almost exclusively by a handful of species of krill, small, shrimp-like crustaceans. Everything in the Southern Ocean either eats krill or eats things that eat krill. The abundant krill results in absolutely staggering populations.1
Hundreds of thousands of King Penguins feed themselves and their kids on krill. And yes, it’s King Penguins all the way up that valley.
The sight, sound and stench of these tens of thousands of animal is absolutely astonishing. It’s a bounty of life that beggars the imagination. Photos cannot begin to capture the sheer fecundity.
It’s not limited to penguins.
And there are whales, orcas, leopard seals and more.
And the indispensable part of it all is the krill. And krill are very seriously threatened by the increased CO2 in the atmosphere. Not by the atmospheric and oceanic warming that are the consequence of elevated CO2. Rather, krill are threatened by increased CO2 raising the acidity – technically, lowering the pH – of the Southern Ocean.
Dr. So Kawaguchi, is a biologist who works for the Australian government’s Antarctic Division. He is probably the world’s expert on krill. He has shown that injecting moderate amounts of CO2 into cold salt water kills krill. A lesser amount stops krill eggs from hatching and stops juveniles from growing to maturity. Cold water – and the Southern Ocean is very cold – can dissolve significantly more CO2 than warmer water. Which means it is even more prone to krill-killing acidification.
Humankind’s love affair with fossil fuels is on track to kick the ecological foundation out from underneath the beautiful, rich Southern Ocean. If the krill are gone, the whole rich, stupendous system will collapse. Can the krill adapt? No one knows. We’re running an uncontrolled experiment on the only planet we have.
- WC took these photos about five years ago; we can’t have you thinking that he has mounted a second trip to the other end of the world. ↩