Ecosystems around Antarctica are becoming increasingly important in tackling climate change and thus should be protected by international treaties, researchers say.
University of Tasmania researchers collaborated on a study of the ecosystems around Antarctica, published in the journal of Global Change Biology, with eight different institutions across the globe.
Lead author of the paper Dr Narissa Bax, from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic studies, said the carbon stored in Antarctic ecosystems, Antarctic Blue Carbon, could help to mitigate the effects of climate change.
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She said carbon stored in these systems eventually finds its way to the sea floor where it is trapped and buried for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The study found that up to $3.2 billion worth of carbon was being stored around the Antarctic and that the potential for that amount to grow should be considered in international climate change policy.
"The increasing Blue Carbon around Antarctica is an important ecosystem service - it could be the world's largest natural negative feedback on climate change....and Antarctica is one of the few places globally where policy makers can be preemptive in their capacity to implement conservation strategies," Dr Bax said.
"It is not like ice melt is a positive thing. It is an unfortunate consequence of climate change that sea ice, glaciers the ice shelves are melting," she said.
"But we've found in concert with that more carbon is being captured and taken through biological pathways to the sea floor."
Study co-author Professor Marcus Haward said a range of mechanisms had been suggested to safeguard Antarctic ecosystems, including Marine Protected Areas, or a non-market framework through the Paris Agreement.
"Our study proposes connecting protection across the Antarctic Treaty System and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, allowing carbon accounting on national emissions to include efforts for protecting Southern Ocean carbon stocks," he said.
"This approach could also pave the way for states to count carbon emission reductions for foregoing fishing or other activities in the relevant areas, which would provide an incentive for nations to act."