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Humans are invading Antarctica’s wildlife and threatening its fragile biodiversity



Since Western explorers discovered Antarctica 200 years ago, human activity has increased. Now more than 30 countries run scientific stations in Antarctica, more than 50,000 tourists visit each year, and new infrastructure continues to be developed to meet the growing demand.

However, determining whether our operations have endangered the Antarctic wilderness has remained difficult.

Our study, published today in Nature, seeks to change that. Using a new “ecological informatics” strategy, we have compiled every available recorded visit of people on the continent, over its 200-year history.

We found that human activity over Antarctica has been extensive, especially in the ice-free areas and the coast, but this is where most biodiversity is found. This means that wilderness areas ̵

1; parts of the continent largely untouched by human activity – do not capture many of the continent’s important biodiversity sites.

One of the world’s largest intact wildernesses

So how big is the Antarctic wilderness? For the first time, our study calculated this area and how much biodiversity it captures. And like all good questions, the answer is “it depends”.

If we think of Antarctica in the same way as all other continents, the whole of Antarctica is a wilderness. It has no farms, no cities, no suburbs, no malls, no factories. And for such a large continent, it has very few people.

Humans are invading Antarctica's wildlife and threatening its fragile biodiversity

Historical and contemporary human activity on Deception Island. Credit: SL Chown

But Antarctica is too different to compare with other continents – it should be kept to a higher standard. And so we define the “wilderness” as areas that are not severely affected by humans. This would, for example, exclude tourist areas and scientific stations. And according to this definition, the wilderness area is still large.

It covers 13,588,148 square kilometers, or more than 99% of the continent. Only the wilderness in the large forest areas in the northern hemisphere is larger. Roughly speaking, this area is almost twice the size of Australia.

On the other hand, the restricted areas (places that are free from human intervention) that the Antarctic Treaty parties identify and protect are rapidly diminishing.

Our analyzes indicate that less than 32% of the continent includes large, invisible areas. And even that is an overestimation. Not all visits have been registered, and several new intersections – passing large parts of invisible areas – are planned.

Wilderness areas have poor biodiversity value

If so much of the continent remains “wild,” how much of Antarctica’s biodiversity lives in these areas?

Humans are invading Antarctica's wildlife and threatening its fragile biodiversity

The Antarctic wilderness should be kept to a higher standard. Credit: SL Chown

Surprisingly few places that are considered really important for Antarctic biodiversity are represented in the “unaffected” wilderness area.

For example, only 16% of the continent’s important bird areas (areas internationally identified as critical for bird protection) are located in wilderness areas. And only 25% of the protected areas established for their species or ecosystem value, and less than 7% of the sites with registered species, are in wilderness areas.

This result is surprising because wilderness areas elsewhere, such as the Amazon rainforest, are usually valued as a vital habitat for biodiversity.

Inviola areas seem to have even less biodiversity value. This is because humans have often had to visit Antarctic sites to collect species data.

In the future, remote sensing technologies can enable us to investigate and monitor untouched areas without going into them. But at the moment, most of our knowledge of Antarctic species comes from places that have been influenced to some extent by humans.

Humans are invading Antarctica's wildlife and threatening its fragile biodiversity

Human activity has been extensive across Antarctica, but large areas without visitor records may still exist across central parts of the continent. Credit: Leihy et al. 2020 nature

How does human activity threaten Antarctica’s biodiversity?

Antarctica’s remaining wilderness areas need urgent protection against increased human activity.

Passing human disturbances can also affect biodiversity and wilderness value in places. For example, sensitive vegetation and soil communities can take years to recover from trampling.

Increased movement around the continent also increases the risk that humans will transfer species between isolated regions or introduce new alien species to Antarctica.

So how can we protect it?

Protecting the Antarctic wilderness can be achieved by expanding the existing Antarctic specially protected network to include more wilderness and offensive areas where decision-makers would restrict human activity.

When planning how to use Antarctica in the future, we can also consider the balance between the benefits of science and tourism, and the value of retaining pristine wilderness and unspoiled areas.

Humans are invading Antarctica's wildlife and threatening its fragile biodiversity

Expanding the existing network of Antarctic protected areas can secure remaining wilderness areas into the future. Credit: SL Chown

This can be done explicitly through the environmental impact assessments required for activities in the region. At present, effects on the value of wilderness in places are rarely considered.

We have an opportunity in Antarctica to protect some of the world’s most intact and undisturbed environments and prevent further erosion of Antarctica’s remarkable wilderness value.


In Antarctica, humanity’s small footprint has a major impact


Provided by The Conversation



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