Antarctica is Melting: Good News for Penguins

A new study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, suggests that the rapid melting of ice in Antarctica may be great news for sea life in the waters surrounding the continent. Although this result of global warming could prove disastrous for humans—causing global flooding of major cities, as well as vast changes to ecosystems worldwide—scientists have found that melting ice is vital to the success of sea life in Antarctica.

Blooming Hot Spots

Antarctic polynyas are bodies of water surrounded by glacial ice. They are advanced ecosystems that support an extremely diverse variety of organisms, including penguins, seals, and fish. These bodies of water is where you will find the most concentrated populations of animals in Antarctica.

Polynyas form when ice breaks apart from the Antarctic shelf, creating new open bodies of water. Scientists have nicknamed these “hot spots,” as they are populated by large amounts of blooming phytoplankton: an algae that makes up the very bottom of the food chain in Antarctica. There are 46 known hot spots right now in Antarctica—scientists predict that there will be increased numbers of these polynyas as global warming continues to break down the glacial ice in Antarctica.

Iron and Ice

Phytoplankton need to feed on large amounts of iron in order to thrive and bloom in these polynyas. Until recently, just where this iron came from has baffled scientists for years, with some suggesting it comes from sunlight, and others from sea surface temperatures. However, a research team from Stanford University has recently discovered the real primary source of this iron: the melting of glacial ice itself.

The study suggests that glacial ice, dragged across the Earth’s surface for thousands of years, contains a rich supply of iron from the rocks and boulders it collects, trapped in its ice. When this ice melts, the iron within is released into open waters, providing phytoplankton with the food they need to bloom. The phytoplankton make up the very bottom of the Antarctic food chain, eaten by krill and fish, which are then eaten by sea birds, whales and seals.

Good News for Penguins

While the melting of ice in Antarctica could prove disastrous for humankind, with rising sea levels expected to swallow up entire bodies of populated land in the near future, Antarctic sea life isn’t holding their breath. In fact, the increase in rapidly melting ice could prove largely beneficial to sea life off the coast of Antarctica. More glacial melting means more iron-rich waters, which in turn means more hot spots, leading to increased amounts of diverse sea life. What’s more, the increased amounts of phytoplankton may actually help us out in the long run, as it naturally pulls carbon dioxide—one of the most troublesome greenhouse gasses—out of the atmosphere, fighting against climate change.


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