Scientists believe the effects of climate change in Antarctica will likely see invasive species come out as the winners, and indigenous species the losers.
Professor Steven Chown from Monash University will lead the international team of researchers examining the land-based plants and animals of Antarctica, and studying how they are responding to climate change.
The project is one of more than 20 to be a part of the Antarctic Circumnavigation Expedition, which is the inaugural expedition of the newly formed Swiss Polar Institute.
Professor Chown said that this will be the most significant Antarctic expedition since the mid 1800s.
“Very few ships actually go around to all the islands and this is one of the first in a very long time,” Professor Chown said.
“The Swiss Polar Institute… has solicited the support of a philanthropist to actually pay for the expedition. Now that’s pretty unusual and unique.”
Professor Chown said the expedition itself is made up of about 22 projects covering a wide range of areas; from carbon in the deep sea – involving marine work – to sea bed populations.
“For us the most significant thing is understanding how life evolved in the region,” he said.
“So many of these islands are really isolated and a good question is, well how did things get there?
“And these are all unresolved questions, you’d think now in the 21st century we’d know all this, but we don’t.
“It’s such an amazing remote place.”
He said that they already have some information on how the area is being affected by climate change.
“So if you think of species that evolved there, that were there before humans arrived for the first time in the 18th century and the 19th century, and then you compare them with species we introduced – either with ships by accident, or sometimes with fodder from sheep when the early stations were being established,” he said.
“It seems to us that the non-indigenous species, the invasive ones, really prefer it quite warm.
“And not only that they develop faster with more heat – of course insects develop, they’re not like us, they can’t regulate their body temperatures, so the warmer it is the faster the go.
“But the rate at which that development increases seems faster for the invasive species.
“So the signal seems to suggest that invasive species will be winners under warming and indigenous ones will be losers.
“Now we’re not sure how completely that applies to all of the groups, what the differences are and that can give us a great deal of insight, not only what the problems might be there, but how we might see this play out elsewhere, such as in Australia, including its temperate regions like Tasmania.”
Professor Chown said some people had accused the team’s message about the future of Antarctica as being “gloomy”.
“My answer always is, well no it’s a message on how we might expect to manage the world into the future,” he said.
“And the more information we have to do that, the better we’ll be.”