Navigating Polar Change: Climate-Smart Marine Spatial Planning for the Southern Ocean

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4 mins
Image: John B. Weller

Image copyright John B. Weller

The Antarctic region stands as a sentinel for the health of our planet through influencing sea level, regulating climate, and driving global ocean circulation. However, the Southern Ocean is facing rising climate pressures, amplified by increasing human activities such as increased fishing, tourism, science and shipping. The Southern Ocean is at the forefront of these changes and its fate is intertwined with the future of every coastline and community across the globe.

Despite ongoing conservation efforts, it is becoming evident that more comprehensive approaches are needed to safeguard this critical ecosystem. Climate-smart Marine Spatial Planning (MSP) presents a proactive strategy for mitigating and adapting to the impacts of climate change while ensuring the sustainable use of marine resources.

Amidst escalating challenges, developing a climate-smart MSP strategy for the Southern Ocean is urgent and requires collaboration between diverse Antarctic Treaty Parties and stakeholders.

Understanding the Problem: Antarctic seascapes are under threat, with knock-on effects across linked ecosystems. Human activities such as commercial fishing and tourism, coupled with the effects of a warming climate, are placing unprecedented pressure on its vulnerable ecosystems. Although several conservation initiatives have been advanced by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), they primarily focus on marine living resources and may not suffice on managing human activities sustainably and addressing broader climate-related challenges. The need for a comprehensive approach to managing the Southern Ocean is more pressing than ever.

Why Does it Matter? The significance of Antarctica extends far beyond its icy borders. As one of the planet's primary regulators of climate and ocean circulation, changes in Antarctica have far-reaching consequences. The Southern Ocean, often referred to as "ground zero" for climate change alongside the Arctic, is a crucial part of Earth’s climate and ecological systems which support human wellbeing. What happens here doesn't stay here – it impacts coastal regions worldwide and the billions of people who rely on them. With increasing human activities exacerbating climate-related pressures, urgent action is needed to protect this vital ecosystem.

The Benefits of Action: Developing a climate-smart MSP strategy for the Southern Ocean holds great benefits for both humans and the planet. By ensuring the health and resilience of the Southern Ocean, we safeguard its ability to regulate climate and support marine biodiversity. Moreover, a successful climate-smart MSP model can serve as a blueprint for managing other Areas Beyond National Jurisdiction (ABNJ) and national waters, contributing to global ocean, climate, and biodiversity goals. Ultimately, securing seascape health underpins the wellbeing of present and future generations.

Proposed Solutions: So, what can we do? The first step is to recognise the urgency of the situation and commit to collaborative action. Parties to the Antarctic Treaty, along with relevant stakeholders such as scientific organisations, tour operators, and national Antarctic programs, must come together to develop a climate-smart MSP strategy for the Southern Ocean.

This strategy should prioritise:

  1. Diversifying data and knowledge types: Incorporating diverse sources of information across disciplines, scales, and knowledge types, to better understand and address climate-related impacts.
  2. Adopting a forward-looking approach: Planning for future scenarios and anticipating changes to effectively manage marine resources in a changing climate.
  3. Maintaining dynamism: Flexible and adaptive MSP development and implementation to respond to emerging challenges and opportunities.
  4. Prioritising ocean health: Centring the health and resilience of marine ecosystems in decision-making processes.

By following these principles and working together across international boundaries, we can pave the way for a more sustainable future for the Southern Ocean and beyond.

Climate-smart MSP offers a holistic approach to address the complex challenges facing the Southern Ocean. By combining scientific expertise with collaborative governance, we can chart a course toward a more resilient and sustainable future for this critical ecosystem. Find out more in a new paper, released this week in Science.

Navigating Polar Change: Climate-Smart Marine Spatial Planning for the Southern Ocean

The Southern Ocean, key to Earth's environmental system, is threatened by climate change. A new paper in Science by Dr Catarina Frazão Santos, Dr Lisa Wedding, and colleagues, details how climate-smart marine spatial planning can support Antarctic seascapes, with implications for the global ocean and human wellbeing.