Antarctic waters at risk of major ecological shift due to climate change: Aust'n research

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The Antarctic Ocean's ecology could soon be changed forever, after Australian-led research revealed the ever-warming Antarctic waters could soon sustain marine life previously only found in warmer climates.

Researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) on Tuesday said the previously inhospitable and chilly waters of the Antarctic had long prevented warm water species from living and breeding, but a number of key factors could open the door for future migration.

The Antarctic Polar Front, a "strong ocean front formed where cold Antarctic water meets warmer waters to the north", has traditionally prevented warm water marine life from passing into Antarctic waters, but the study found the front does allow floating kelp and seaweed to pass, clearing a path for warm water crustaceans, worms, snail and microorganisms to enter the Antarctic ecology.

Dr Ceridwen Fraser, from the ANU's School of Environment and Society said in the past this hadn't been much of an issue, as warm water species would not be able to survive in the harsh Antarctic waters, but now that global warming had sparked a rise in temperature in the Antarctic Ocean, the organisms could begin to breach and "colonize" in the foreign water.

Fraser said this development could lead to "drastic" ecosystem changes, with researchers unsure of how it would affect the ecology of the region in the future.

"So far, the northern species don't seem to be surviving long in the cold, icy Antarctic. But with climate change and warming oceans, many non-Antarctic species could soon colonize the region," Fraser said in a statement released on Tuesday.

"We now know marine species from the north can easily get into Antarctic waters. The Antarctic is one of the world's fastest warming regions, and the consequences of new species establishing there could lead to drastic ecosystem changes."

She said the results of the study will help scientists to plan strategies for protecting Antarctica's unique marine life from an ecological shift.

"We've been focusing a lot on minimizing plants and animals being accidentally carried into the Antarctic by humans, for example with ship ballast water," Fraser said.

"This research shows that some species can also get into the region without our help." Endit

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