As the world’s largest land mass with no human settlements, Antarctica is the last great wilderness on the planet. An international treaty signed in 1949 designates the entire place a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science,” which means no mining, extraction, nuclear waste dumping, or military activities are allowed. But a well-intentioned piece of paper isn’t going to protect Antarctica from a steadily growing stream of adventurers and researchers. The 40,000 or so people a year who visit are now putting Antarctica’s unspoiled ecosystems at risk, a new study shows.
“Many people think that Antarctica is well protected from threats to its biodiversity because it’s isolated and no one lives there, however, we show that’s not true,” says Justine Shaw, a research fellow at the University of Queensland.
Writing in the journal PLoS Biology, the researchers illustrate that Antarctica’s rate of biodiversity protection is actually much lower compared to other nations around the world and ranks in the bottom 25% of nations globally. Only a tiny sliver of the continent’s ice-free land–which is where most wildlife, and most people, spend their time–is formally protected.
When visitors come to Antarctica, they bring pollution and invasive pests to an already-fragile ecosystem that includes native plants, insects, and seabirds that occur nowhere else in the world. For example, says Shaw, invasive annual meadow grass is expanding in Antarctica, which is likely to increase with climate change. There is only one native grass in Antarctica, and the invasive grass is out competing it.
All 55 areas that are protected for their biodiversity value today are within close proximity to areas of human activity, the study says, and seven are at “high risk” for biological invasion. In total, Antarctica’s ice-free regions make up about 46,000 square kilometers, which is just a little larger than the state of Maryland. This means there’s little room for error.
Both scientists and tourists are having an impact in Antarctica. While there are tens of thousands of tourists visiting Antarctica, there currently isn’t as much land-based infrastructure associated with tourism as compared to researchers, Shaw says. And scientists, though their numbers are much less, pose unique dangers, in that they are more likely to carry foreign seeds with them.
Tourism by cruise ship, land, and plane, however, could continue to grow on the continent, as it has since the early 1990s. Though growth has slowed down in recent years because of the global recession, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators expects it to take off again eventually. As a “relatively expensive, niche destination,” it’s never going to become Disney World, but the tour operators still have prepared a plan to be “growth ready” while addressing concerns that come with increased visitation.
The paper authors, who are based at the University of Queensland and Australia’s National Environmental Research Program, say that a more proactive approach to conservation in Antarctica is needed, especially given the additional challenges caused by climate change. Says co-author Hugh Possingham: “If we don’t establish adequate and representative protected areas in Antarctica this unique and fragile ecosystem could be lost.”