MELBOURNE, FLA.—Climate change, warming the waters of Antarctica, is creating an environment for predatory crabs to return to an area they inhabited millions of years ago. Their return would disrupt Antarctica’s primeval marine communities.
To look for these crabs in the largely unexplored Antarctic sea bottom in the Bellingshausen and Amundsen Seas, Richard Aronson, professor and head of Florida Institute of Technology’s Department of Biological Sciences, has received a $453,000 grant from the National Science Foundation.
The funding will allow Aronson and his research team to use a Swedish icebreaker, the Oden, to inspect these areas. “We will use a combination of plankton tows and videography from an autonomous underwater vehicle to see how climate change may be promoting the reinvasion of these crabs. They have been shut out of shallow-water environments by cold temperatures for millions of years,” said Aronson.
“When ships dump their ballast water in the Antarctic seas, marine species from as far away as the Subarctic are injected into the system,” he said.
Antarctica’s coastal waters are warming rapidly. Temperatures at the sea surface off the western Antarctic Peninsula have gone up 1°C (almost 2°F) in the last 50 years, making it one of the fastest-warming regions of the World Ocean.
If the crab invasion succeeds, it will devastate Antarctica’s spectacular fauna and fundamentally alter its ecological relationships. “That would be a tragic loss for biodiversity in one of the last truly wild places on earth,” said Aronson. “Unless we can get control of ship traffic and greenhouse-gas emissions, climate change will ruin marine communities in Antarctica and make the world a sadder, duller place.”
Aronson has led previous ecological and paleontological research expeditions to Antarctica, funded by the National Science Foundation.