Anyone who has ever been to the South Pole has a very special experience. It changes us as people. It is the harshest and coldest climate on earth where only by working together do we humans stand a chance of surviving. I experienced this myself during my crossing of Antarctica in 1989.
But just because we aren’t adapted to the extreme cold doesn’t mean life doesn’t exist in this part of the world. The variety is incomparable. The nature of the poles has always fascinated us, it has taught us respect and as adventurers and explorers we have set ourselves the goal of connecting people with the poles. We are part of the nature of this planet.
Even at a depth of 500 meters under the ice floes of the Southern Ocean, scientists discovered colorful life during a trip on the research ship Polarstern: sea cucumbers, sea anemones and giant worms. These creatures, some of which have not yet been described, are part of a fragile ecosystem. They develop very slowly and therefore need special protection. As a leader of expeditions with scientific support, I see my mission as illustrating how relevant extreme climate zones are for the biodiversity of the earth.
Science documents how closely we are connected to this part of the planet with numbers: The Southern Ocean absorbs up to 40 percent of the anthropogenic carbon dioxide that the biological pump of the oceans extracts from the atmosphere. In addition, the Circumpolar Current – a cold ocean current that flows around the continent – is one of the engines of the global system that nourishes our oceans.
Our society is only slowly beginning to understand that the biodiversity and climate crises are linked. Using the example of krill, it can be illustrated that intact food webs are essential for the CO2 storage capacity of the oceans: These small crustaceans eat phytoplankton during the day and then migrate to the depths. They also transport carbon downwards. They are eaten by penguins, whales and seals, whose excrement and the carbon it contains sink to the bottom of the sea.
In the Antarctic region alone, krill transports 23 million tons of carbon down every year. That is equivalent to the amount of carbon emitted by 35 million cars per year. If the krill population becomes imbalanced, for example due to overfishing, the entire Antarctic food web is disrupted: the lives of black toothfish, killer whales and blue whales are threatened and the carbon sink system is severely disrupted at the same time.
Fishing represents the greatest negative impact on biodiversity. Combined with the consequences of rising temperatures due to climate change, it threatens the fragile balance of this extremely rich ecosystem. With strict protection of large parts – also from fishing activities – the Southern Ocean can remain resilient in times of climate change and continue to fulfill its role as a significant carbon sink. Every year, the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources meets. As early as 2009, 25 countries and the EU decided to create a network of marine protected areas in the Southern Ocean. Conflicts of interest of some of the countries involved in commercial fishing stand in the way. Only through talks at the highest political level can they be resolved or postponed and the protection of the Southern Ocean realized.
Germany is primarily committed to protecting the Weddell Sea. It is one of the three marine protected areas planned since 2009, along with the Western Peninsula and East Antarctica. Together they would form the largest marine protected area in human history, covering a total of around four million square kilometers. In recent years, Russia and China have blocked this protection. If states succeed in mobilizing the highest diplomatic level in their countries for the idea of protection in these explosive times, they will create the best basis for negotiations. Then great things can also happen at the international level.
The Antarctic Treaty is a good example of this: the global importance of Antarctica’s fragile ecosystem was already recognized 60 years ago. Despite the international disagreements, twelve countries, including Russia, joined forces. It came into force in 1961 and aims to preserve the ecological balance at the South Pole, support scientific research and promote peaceful international cooperation.
Above all, we see the 44th Meeting of Antarctic Treaty Representatives, taking place in Berlin this year, as an opportunity for policymakers to resolve conflicts and ensure that the spirit of the Antarctic Treaty endures – for future generations and for our planet. The moment for this is now. We should take this chance.