Skip to main content

James Gray MP talks of his experience leading the Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research during evidence gathering visit to Antarctica

24 January 2024

For a Select Committee scrutinising Government policy on the environment and policies to tackle climate change, there is no better location to undertake an international visit than to Antarctica. The threat of melting sheet ice on the continent is so grave for the rest of the world it is hard to fathom: estimates suggest that 70% of the world’s freshwater reserves are frozen in Antarctica, and if melted, would raise global sea levels by an enormous 60 metres.

And so, we were keen to see for ourselves the changing Antarctic and to meet with some of the UK’s preeminent scientists and researchers leading the work to understand this precious and vulnerable region.

Three specific dangers stood out for me: ice loss; avian flu; and unsustainable fishing.

During our visit, we were exceptionally grateful to have joined the RAF on Operation Coldstare, in which the RAF monitors environmental conditions from the skies in British territories in sub-Antarctica. During our expedition, we witnessed a megaberg drifting towards the island of South Georgia. Climate change and warming in the Southern ocean could see more ice shelves breaking off and drifting elsewhere, posing major threats to surrounding islands. This could cause dangers to ecosystems and their habitats as large icebergs scour the seabeds and can create walls between land and the feeding grounds of the region’s penguins and seals.

Avian flu has not yet reached mainland Antarctica. Unfortunately, and very sadly, we heard from people on the ground that in South Georgia where numerous sea birds are suffering from avian flu, that they are beginning to see similar illness in mammals such as seals.  The consequences of Avian flu reaching Antarctica would be very concerning, as the continent is home to unique ecosystems and biodiversity and its populations of seabirds and sea mammals are at risk. We heard that scientists are working to track avian flu and monitor and conserve the regions wildlife. 

Also severely affecting food chains in the region is unsustainable fishing. Krill is a major contributor in the food chain, devoured by penguins and seals alike. But there is a large section of the South Atlantic where fishing is unregulated, leading countries to fish unsustainably and pushing fish populations outside the reach of their predators. It is abundantly clear that more must be done by the international community to protect the waters and ecosystems in this area of the world before it is too late. Our Committee will certainly pay close attention to this issue as our inquiry develops.

Now that we are home and dry from the fact-finding mission, we are laser focused to consider the solutions to protect the Antarctic environment and enhance Antarctic science. We want to make sure we are making the very most of British science prowess and celebrating the phenomenal work that UK researchers do day-in, day-out.

Stay tuned for further evidence sessions on Antarctica from February, with a resulting report being published before the summer.

James Gray MP is Chair of the Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research

Further information

Image credit: Rebecca Lees/UK Parliament