The Antarctic shore is a place of huge contrasts, as quiet, dark, and frozen winters give way to bright, clear waters, thick with algae and peppered with drifting icebergs in summer. But as the planet has warmed in the last two decades, massive losses of sea ice in winter have left icebergs free to roam for most of the year. As a result, say researchers reporting in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on June 16, boulders on the shallow seabed — once encrusted with a rich assemblage of species in intense competition for limited space — now mostly support a single species. The climate-linked increase in iceberg activity has left all other species so rare as to be almost irrelevant.
“The Antarctic Peninsula can be considered an early warning system — like a canary in a coal mine,” says David Barnes of the British Antarctic Survey. “Physical changes there are amongst the most extreme and the biology considered quite sensitive, so it was always likely to be a good place to observe impacts of climate change — but impacts elsewhere are likely to be not too far behind. A lot of the planet depends on the near-shore environment, not least for food; what happens there to make it less stable is important.”