The Southern Ocean is a major component within the global ocean and climate system and potentially the location where the most rapid climate change is most likely to happen, particularly in the high-latitude polar regions. In these regions, even small temperature changes can potentially lead to major environmental perturbations. Climate change is likely to be regional and may be expressed in various ways, including alterations to climate and weather patterns across a variety of time-scales that include changes to the long interdecadal background signals such as the development of the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Oscillating climate signals such as ENSO potentially provide a unique opportunity to explore how biological communities respond to change. This approach is based on the premise that biological responses to shorter-term sub-decadal climate variability signals are potentially the best predictor of biological responses over longer time-scales. Around the Southern Ocean, marine predator populations show periodicity in breeding performance and productivity, with relationships with the environment driven by physical forcing from the ENSO region in the Pacific. Wherever examined, these relationships are congruent with mid-trophic-level processes that are also correlated with environmental variability. The short-term changes to ecosystem structure and function observed during ENSO events herald potential long-term changes that may ensue following regional climate change. For example, in the South Atlantic, failure of Antarctic krill recruitment will inevitably foreshadow recruitment failures in a range of higher trophic-level marine predators. Where predator species are not able to accommodate by switching to other prey species, population-level changes will follow. The Southern Ocean, though oceanographically interconnected, is not a single ecosystem and different areas are dominated by different food webs. Where species occupy different positions in different regional food webs, there is the potential to make predictions about future change scenarios.
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(Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B, 362: 2351–2365 (2007), doi: 10.1098/rstb.2006.1953)