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article imageHuman activity encroaching on Antarctica's ecosystems

By Karen Graham     Jun 19, 2014 in Environment
Antarctica is the world's last great wilderness, a continent covering 5.4 million square miles, or about twice the size of Australia, Antarctica belongs to no one nation, and there is no government, other than an international agreement.
The neutrality of Antarctica has been maintained since the 1959 Antarctic Treaty that suspended any future claims to sovereignty over any territories on the continent. Other treaties followed, in particular, banning mining, military activity and use of the land for anything but scientific or other peaceful uses. The latest treaty, the Madrid Protocol went into affect on January 14, 1998.
While 98 percent of Antarctica is covered in ice to a depth of 1.2 miles, it is considered a desert, only receiving about eight inches of precipitation along its coastal areas, and a lot less inland every year. One could easily say the continent is the coldest, driest and windiest place anywhere in the world.
While no human residents live in Antarctica, there are no towns, cities or accoutrement's of the civilized world to speak of, there are usually 1,000 to 5,000 people living there throughout the year at research stations, most located in the small ice-free areas. These areas only constitute about two percent of the total continent.
Antarctic hair grass at Petermann Island/ Antarctica.
Photo taken: 01/19/2010
Antarctic hair grass at Petermann Island/ Antarctica. Photo taken: 01/19/2010
Lomvi2 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The uniqueness of the ice-free areas is brought home to researchers and scientists because just about all of the continent's flora and fauna are found here. The biodiversity of the ice-free areas consists of simple ecosystems, and due to the low species diversity, makes native flora and fauna particularly vulnerable to destruction or invasion by non-native species of plants or animals.
The threat to Antarctica's's biodiversity
A new study was published in the journal PLoS Biology on June 17, 2014. The research team was funded by the Environmental Decision Hub (National Environment Research Program Australia) and Australian Antarctic Science Project 4024. The team, led by Justine D. Shaw of the University of Queensland, studied the impact increasing human activity and visitation on the flora and fauna in the ice-free regions of Antarctica.
The dumping of waste (even old vehicles)  such as here at the Russian Bellingshausen Station in 1992...
The dumping of waste (even old vehicles), such as here at the Russian Bellingshausen Station in 1992, is prohibited since the entry into force of the Protocol on Environmental Protection in 1998.
Besides the research centers already located in the ice-free areas, there has been an increase in the numbers of tourists and their accompanying support personnel. The impact on the ecological environment has seen an increase over the past 20 years, with the addition of more roads, buildings, fuel depots and runways. The team found an increase of unintended damages that have occurred, from sewage spills and the destruction of vegetation to the introduction of non-native species. All activities, both scientific and tourism related, have been on the increase, and are expected to rise even more.
At the present time, there are 70 research centers, manned by researchers and support personnel from 30 countries, 40 year-round and around 30 in the summers only. When tourism started out in the 1980s, there were fewer than 2,000 people making the trek to the bottom of the world. In 2007-2008, the numbers rose to over 46,000, then dropped to 27,000 in 2012.
Someone is always out to make money, and sure enough, the Rhode Island-based International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators are one of the groups coordinating the visits. The number of tourists visiting Antarctica in 2013 is estimated at 35,000, according to the group. What is of concern to scientists and other advocates of Antarctica protection is the changing diversity of the tourist activities.
"What used to be Antarctic tourism in the late '80s through the '90s was generally people of middle age or older going on cruises and small ships where they went ashore at a few locations and they looked at wildlife, historic sites and maybe visited one current station. But there's an increasing diversification of the activities now so it's much more action orientated. Now people want to go paragliding, water-skiing, diving or a variety of other things," says Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant on polar regions.
And this expansion of activities, as well as the increasing number of tour ships is what has become a big concern. The research team looked at any number of problems, from research station personnel not abiding by the rules, tourism, and even the impact from oil spills creating an environmental disaster along the shores of this once pristine wilderness.
Findings of the study
Professor Steven Chown from the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University said, "Antarctica has been invaded by plants and animals, mostly grasses and insects, from other continents. The very real current and future threats from invasions are typically located close to protected areas. Such threats to protected areas from invasive species have been demonstrated elsewhere in the world, and we find that Antarctica is, unfortunately, no exception."
Dr. Justine D. Shaw pointed out that the very few protected areas in Antarctica now fall short of the Aichi Biodiversity Indicators Partnership (BIP) targets. Established in 2006, the international strategy is aimed at reducing threats to the biodiversity of over 20 targeted areas needing protection of the ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.
The nature of Antarctica is in its diversity
The nature of Antarctica is in its diversity
Georges Nijs from Diepenbeek, Belgium
Dr. Shaw said that people think that because Antarctica is so isolated that the flora and fauna are safe from any devastation caused from humankind, or anything else. This is not the case, as the studies have shown. Increased growth of scientific research stations, and a greatly increased number of thrill-seeking tourists is going to have a negative effect on what is left of a once pure and pristine ecosystem.
"We need to establish protected areas that are representative of Antarctic biodiversity to protect a diverse suite of native insects, plants and seabirds, many of which occur nowhere else in the world," Dr Shaw said. "We also need to ensure that Antarctic protected areas are not going to be impacted by increasing human activities, such as pollution, trampling or invasive species," she added.
More about Antarctica, Invasive species, Madrid protocol, Biodiversity, New study
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