Climate change is rapidly altering the habitat of Antarctic krill (
Euphausia superba), a key species of the Southern Ocean food web. Krill are a critical element of Southern Ocean ecosystems as well as biogeochemical cycles, while also supporting an international commercial fishery. In addition to trends forced by global-scale, human-driven warming, the Southern Ocean is highly dynamic, displaying large fluctuations in surface climate on interannual to decadal timescales. The dual roles of forced climate change and natural variability affecting Antarctic krill habitat, and therefore productivity, complicate interplay of observed trends and contribute to uncertainty in future projections. We use the Community Earth System Model Large Ensemble (CESM-LE) coupled with an empirically derived model of krill growth to detect and attribute trends associated with “forced,” human-driven climate change, distinguishing these from variability arising naturally. The forced trend in krill growth is characterized by a poleward contraction of optimal conditions and an overall reduction in Southern Ocean krill habitat. However, the amplitude of natural climate variability is relatively large, such that the forced trend cannot be formally distinguished from natural variability at local scales over much of the Southern Ocean by 2100. Our results illustrate how natural variability is an important driver of regional krill growth trends and can mask the forced trend until late in the 21st century. Given the ecological and commercial global importance of krill, this research helps inform current and future Southern Ocean krill management in the context of climate variability and change.