By Christine Amour-Levar
February 2023 - Antarctica may seem distant for most of us, yet this remote continent contains enough ice to raise sea levels around the world by tens of metres. What happens in Antarctica therefore has implications on coastal regions worldwide and the billions of people who live within them.
I have just returned to Singapore after an unforgettable week in Antarctica where I was travelling with a team of scientists from the Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS). There, we experienced extreme weather, from beautiful sunshine and warm conditions, to gale-force winds, strong swells and sub-zero temperatures. Indeed, there were two days during which we could not even leave the ship as it was too unsafe to get into the zodiacs because of the swell.
We also visited one of the oldest research bases in Antarctica, Port Lockroy, set up in the late 1940s by British explorers, and there, we spoke to the people at the centre and they shared that this past year has seen historic snowfall and unprecedented amounts of rain. In fact, last month, was the wettest month ever recorded, and this rain caused accelerated calving of the ice sheet and glaciers in and around the research station. So we have, in a way, seen climate change in action, first hand - and this inevitably brings home the urgency of the situation. They say Antarctica is one of the fastest warming regions on the planet...and we really saw this happening. Everything is changing.
As a low-lying island in the tropics, Singapore, where I reside, is especially vulnerable to changes in the oceans. The government had in 2019, announced a S$100 billion plan to protect Singapore from the threat of rising sea levels over the next 50 to 100 years. To contribute to Singapore’s fight against rising sea levels, scientists from EOS, led by Professor Benjamin Horton, one of the leading climate scientist in the world, have – for the first time - travelled to Antarctica to better understand the threat of the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet on Singapore and Southeast Asia. The scientists have also conducted a range of research activities there. They include ice coring to understand past temperatures and the current rate of melting, sampling the Antarctic deep water to analyse its chemistry and its influence on the movement of the world's oceans, and air sampling to investigate microorganisms in the atmosphere.
Why is Asia most at risk from Climate Change?
A lot of people think that what happens in the Arctic and the Antarctic does not really concern us here in Asia, but China, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines account for 70% of the people living on land most at risk from rising waters. As the rate of climate change accelerates, many coastal cities will be affected, and Asian cities will be hit much harder than others given their population, economic activity, and landmass. The processes that control sea-level rise are amplified in Asia. As a result, four out of every five people impacted by sea level rise by 2050 will live in East or Southeast Asia. Scientists estimate that 300 million people will be flooded annually by 2050, and by then there could be over 1 billion climate refugees.
A recent study found that a wide range of environmental and climate change threats are worst for Asian cities, with the rest of the planet getting off more lightly. Based on such factors as pollution, a lack of water, extreme heat and general vulnerability to climate change, 99 of the 100 most risk-prone cities in the world are in Asia, with the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, topping the list and cities in India close behind. Jakarta, with a population of more than 10.5 million people, is sinking. Like many coastal cities around the world, Jakarta is vulnerable to sea level rise. Built on what was once a swamp, the city has serious water supply problems and its air is severely polluted.
Indeed, sea level rise is one of the biggest existential threats to the prosperity of the region of Southeast Asia. Most people don’t realise that the two main drivers are the north and south poles on the planet, where vast quantities of fresh water have been frozen in time since the last ice age. However all this is changing rapidly as global warming is accelerating the rate of ice-melt in these regions, which will threaten millions of coastal habitats cross the world – but none as concerning as Southeast Asia. Scientists at EOS are most concerned about the effects of the melting ice on both sea level rise and extreme weather events, like storm surges, typhoons, tsunamis and just how fast and how high the polar regions could impact coastal habitats, infrastructure, food and economic security in the region..
What Kind of Sea Level Rise Can we Expect?
As more carbon dioxide is released into the atmospheres and our planet heats up, warmer waters are expanding and glaciers are melting much faster, raising the level at which the sea meets the land. Although predictions for the extent and rate of sea level rise vary greatly, it is believed that if all of Greenland were to melt, it would raise sea levels by six meters, but it is Antarctica that we are increasingly worried about.
Antarctica is colossal in size, covering a surface area greater than Australia, having a thickness of up to four kilometres. If the West Antarctic ice sheet alone were to collapse, scientists estimate that the resulting global mean sea-level rise would be 4.2 metres (3.2m sea level rise + 1 additional metre because of water-expulsion mechanisms), and if all of it were to melt, this would raise sea level by 65 metres. If we go above 2 degrees Celsius pre-industrial levels and don’t meet the Paris Agreement, this will be our tipping point. It will result in our ice sheets disintegrating. Greenland and Antarctica combined will mean more than 70 metres of water in terms of sea level rise – this would be catastrophic for our species.
What this Means for Future Generations
Climate change is a global problem, but in Antarctica, we saw it happening right in front of our eyes. The landscape is massive and it’s got so much ice in it. Simply put, we have to find a way to slow down the changes in Antarctica to give future generations the ability and the time to solve the climate emergency.
The impacts of the melting of the ice sheets have such massive implications for every single person in Singapore, Southeast Asia and on our planet. This trip to Antarctica has been incredibly important to help our team of scientist understand the processes that control sea level in the past as well as in the future, which have consequences for billions of people on Earth.
It has only reinforced my realisation that we are truly at a tipping point in the very fate of human civilisation. We have, but a few years to try and protect this environment, so that future generations have a place to live and a place to prosper. There is a real sense of urgency, but when you travel to Antarctica with a group of young scientists, as part of an international team, there is also a great sense of hope. Every young person has such an important role to play to save their generation and future generations from this urgent climate threat.
Ultimately, if we solve climate change, we will solve the inequality that exists across the world. If we solve climate change, there will be justice and inclusivity for all. This is why it is so vital to find a solution. My hope is that my four children will have the opportunity to come to environments like Antarctica and see the changes taking place while trying to understand the impacts. And then most importantly, that their generation may find the solutions to the climate emergency. We don’t have a moment to waste.
Meeting Sylvia Earle
One of the highlights of my trip to Antarctica was meeting up with one of the “Heroes of the Planet”, Sylvia Earle, a world-renowned marine biologist, oceanographer, and explorer. Our team boarded her ship the “Sylvia Earle” which happened to be anchored near our own. What a privilege it was to chat with her and the Mission Blue Team about the importance of protecting our oceans and putting a stop to industrial overfishing that threatens hundreds of species with extinction. She also brought up deep sea mining, a process of extracting minerals like manganese, copper, and nickel from depths of over 200 meters. Because these materials are becoming harder to find on land, companies want to continue their harvesting under the ocean. But deep-sea mining would destroy ecosystems — some of which haven't been named or even discovered. Sylvia, who has explored the ocean for most of her life, spoke passionately about the fact that deep-sea mining is an extremely invasive process that would lead to exploitation, contamination, and even extinction.
A few days after we got back to Singapore, on March 4, we were ecstatic to learn that following almost two decades of discussion and negotiations, the United Nations passed a new oceans treaty that focuses on the conservation of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction. The treaty, which was developed in cooperation with the International Maritime Organization (IMO), aims to protect marine biodiversity on the high seas. It covers marine genetic resources including questions on benefit sharing, marine protected areas, environmental impact assessments and capacity-building and the transfer of marine technology. This landmark achievement will no doubt reinforce efforts to protect biodiversity around the planet, something Sylvia has been fighting for all her life.
NOTES TO EDITORS
About HER Planet Earth
HER Planet Earth is non-profit organisation headquartered in Singapore that aims to empower women to mitigate climate change. One of its core objectives is to inspire more women to become policymakers and agents of change to achieve social and economic equity and a healthy and thriving planet. HER Planet Earth organises challenging, often pioneering, self-funded expeditions around the world to increase awareness on environmental degradation and raise funds for programmes that empower and educate underprivileged women affected by climate change - ultimately helping them build climate change resilience. The organisation partners with nature lovers, environmentalists, scientists, investors, polar explorers, adventurers, women’s rights advocates, corporates, tech entrepreneurs, feminists and charities that have programmes and structures in place dedicated to building a deeper connection between gender equality, genuinely sustainable development, and the protection of the environment.
About the Earth Observatory of Singapore
The Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) was created in 2008 with the mission to conduct fundamental research on earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and climate change in and around Southeast Asia, toward safer and more sustainable societies. The need for an institution like EOS has never been more important for Singapore and Southeast Asia. Disasters connected with natural hazards affect increasingly large populations, and in many cases are compounded by the threat of climate change and rising sea levels. To illustrate, the global economy suffered losses due to geo-disasters of ~US$232 billion in 2019, with many these occurring in Asia (Aon, 2020). Similarly, it is estimated that climate change and related disasters could directly cost the Asian economy ~US $8.5 trillion by 2030 as increased drought, flooding and crop failures hamper growth and threaten infrastructure. EOS will help to build the social compact for Singapore to tackle the challenges of climate change and sustainability, which is central to the major Green Plan policy priority of the Government. Building stronger capabilities to understand, mitigate and respond to natural hazards, disasters and climate change is critical to the sustainability and resilience of urban communities and infrastructure around our region. EOS generates scientific breakthroughs that meet our societal needs and improve the lives of those that live in Singapore and Southeast Asia. https://www.earthobservatory.sg
Polar Impact Asia Documentary
Our expedition was filmed by award-winning filmmaker Liz Courtney to form a second episode in the new documentary series Polar Impact Asia, which will be distributed across multiple streaming platforms in the second half of 2023.
For media queries and interviews with Professor Benjamin Horton, Director of EOS and Fang Yi Tan, PHD Student Sea Level Research at EOS, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo credit: HER Planet Earth, EOS, Sandra Lim, Quark Expeditions