The Trouble with Krill

It’s easy to focus on the big stuff when it comes to climate change and the impacts of rising carbon dioxide emissions. While we often overlook the smaller life forms in favor of their cuter, more charismatic counterparts, the impact of increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere on less visible species could have enormous ramifications. Krill, a tiny orange crustacean, is a startling example.

As we pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, it is most easily absorbed in the cooler waters of the polar regions, in this case, the southern ocean. The result is ocean acidification.

University of Tasmania investigator, Lilli Hale led a recent study at the Australian Antarctic Division involving captive bred krill. Krill were exposed to oceanic conditions expected this century as a result of rising carbon dioxide emissions. Her results showed the ability of krill to survive, let a lone breed will become progressively more difficult. This does not bode well for the long term future of krill, but more alarmingly, it may well lead to a complete collapse of the southern ocean ecosystem as we currently know and depend on it.

Tiny, shrimp-like krill Euphasia superba swarm in their billions and are the basis of the Antarctic food chain. Every other animal, including us, depends directly or indirectly on this abundant food resource. It sustains fisheries in the southern hemisphere. penguins, seabirds and seals depend on it for survival, not to mention whales, which plough through and swallow krill by the tonne in preparation for their annual migration.