Antarctic life is under threat by increased human activity, study finds

We're increasing our presence on the last uncolonised continent on Earth for the sake of science, but recent research claims greater measures are needed to protect the Antarctic.

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In the barren wastelands of Antarctica opportunity for life is rare. Home to some of the hardiest creatures alive, this bleak landscape demands its inhabitants adapt to its incredibly inhospitable environment. Temperatures have dropped as low as -90°C, the coldest ever recorded on Earth, and kilometre-high ice sheets cover 98 per cent of the continent; what little land remains is agonisingly dry desert.

So it comes a great surprise that a few species have actually managed to thrive here. Antarctica is home to hundreds of varieties of fungi, moss and even two species of flowering plant. Over a hundred million birds migrate here each spring to breed. Most come in the knowledge that they are just transient observers, here for mating season before flying back to warmer shores – others, like the emperor penguins of the Antarctic’s frozen ice sheets, are permanent inhabitants.

The flora and fauna that survive here have developed ingenious methods to adapt to the harsh climate. But increasingly, the environment they’ve become acclimatised to is becoming less and less of a worry. Humanity – with its insatiable curiosity for the unknown – is threatening the smattering of life that scrapes by already.

A study led by Australia’s National Environmental Research Programme has recently announced that “rapidly growing human activity is accelerating threats to biodiversity” in the Antarctic region. Researchers assessed the threat from biological invasions and examined the failure of the current area protection system to defend against these risks. They found that “Antarctica’s protected areas are inadequate, unrepresentative, and at risk”.

Lead researcher Justine Shaw, biologist at the University of Queensland, believes the Antarctic Circle’s remoteness and isolation leads many to overestimate its security. "With no permanent human settlements and science and tourism as the only land-based industries, Antarctica is under lower direct human pressure than any other continent,” she wrote. “Consequently, it is widely believed that the terrestrial Antarctic is more than adequately protected. In this perspective, we provide evidence that shows this is not the case.”

Increasing numbers of scientists are now living and working at research facilities built in the ice-free zones: almost a hundred research stations and smaller field camps have been established, accompanied by infrastructure requirements such as fuel depots and road networks. The lack of ice makes it attractive for researchers to set up shop, but for the same reason these tiny regions are also home to the majority of life on the continent.  

Moreover, the number of tourists visiting the icy continent has skyrocketed to almost 50,000 a year. This has grave consequences for the region. Even with the best of intentions, the very presence of humans is enough to cause damage to the fragile ecosystem – a study from 2012 found that hundreds of thousands of seeds are imported in clothing each year by these unwitting visitors.

Whilst many of these foreign species were unsuitable for life in the Antarctic, others were brought over from polar regions such as Siberia and Alaska. This can be hugely detrimental. Once the seeds are established in these new countries, they can be notoriously difficult to remove, often out-competing the native inhabitants who are unaccustomed to their unfriendly neighbours.

The Antarctic Treaty System, which has fifty signatories to date, is designed to defend against such threats. Here's what it aims to do:

The Parties commit themselves to the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems and hereby designate Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”

Unfortunately, this has been pretty unsuccessful. According to Shaw, Antarctica’s protection is woefully inadequate:

We found that Antarctica is one of the planet's least protected regions, with only 1.5% of its ice-free area formally designated as specially protected areas. Five of the distinct ice-free eco-regions have no specially designated areas for the protection of biodiversity.”

By any measure ... Antarctic biodiversity is poorly protected by reserves, and those reserves are threatened.”

Limiting the impact of humanity on the polar region is a necessity, as research in Antarctica is of vital importance to the scientific community. It was less than thirty years ago that British scientists at the polar Halley Research Facility discovered the hole in the ozone layer caused by CFCs. More recently, a US team extracted their longest polar ice core to date, to examine the effects of climate change on the ice sheet and its microbiology. 

If such ground-breaking research is to continue, careful planning will be required to ensure it does so with regard to the fragility of life there. Without a revised protection scheme, the stability of life in this once-untouched region will be greatly threatened.

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