Better Protection From Humans Needed For Antarctica's Ice-Free Land
June 19, 2014

Better Protection From Humans Needed For Antarctica’s Ice-Free Land

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Despite the harsh conditions, the number of visitors arriving in the Antarctic is soaring each year. This worries the world's leading environmental scientists who say that Antarctica's ice-free land needs better protection from human activities.

Of the 55 Antarctic areas designated for protection, all of them lie close to human activity sites and seven are at a high risk for biological invasions. According to the study, published in PLOS Biology, five of Antarctica's distinct ecological regions have no protected areas at all.

A surprising 40,000 people visit Antarctica every year, and these people are building more research facilities in the tiny ice-free zone. Because this is where most of the humans live, and most of the continent's biodiversity lies, the need for further protection becomes clear.

Antarctica's ice-free zone contains very simple ecosystems because of the low species diversity, according to Professor Steven Chown from Monash University's School of Biological Sciences. Such simple ecosystems, with very few "checks and balances," makes the native wildlife and plants extremely vulnerable to invasion by exotic species.

“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,” Professor Chown, head of the School of Biological Sciences, said.

“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 Shaw, of the National Environmental Research Program's (NERP) Environmental Decisions Hub at the University of Queensland, calls Antarctica the "last wilderness on Earth." Shaw worries that this wilderness is also one of the planet's least-protected areas. Dr. Shaw is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Biological Sciences who focuses on the conservation of Antarctic and sub-Antarctic ecosystems.

“Most of Antarctica is covered in ice, with less than one per cent permanently ice-free. Only 1.5 per cent of this ice-free area belongs to Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty System, yet ice free land is where the majority of biodiversity occurs,” Dr Shaw said.

The Aichi Biodiversity Targets is an international biodiversity strategy from the Convention on Biological Diversity aiming to reduce threats to biodiversity, and protect ecosystems species and genetic diversity. The Targets include such goals as: address the underlying causes of biodiversity loss by mainstreaming biodiversity across government and society, reduce the direct pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use, and enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity and ecosystem services, among others. Each of these goals has a number of targets to reach, such as making people aware of the value of biodiversity (and how they can protect it) by 2020. According to the new study, the Antarctic's protected areas fall well short of these targets.

In fact, after comparing the protected areas of the Antarctic to protected areas of nations around the world the team of researchers concluded that Antarctica ranks in the lowest 25 percent of assessed nations.

The perception of the general public, according to Shaw, is that Antarctica is well protected from threats due to its isolation and the fact that there is no permanent human settlement on the continent. The findings of their study, however, show that this perception is false.

“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.

Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth with no agriculture, mining or urban sprawl, according to Professor Hugh Possingham of NERP's Environmental Decisions Hub at the University of Queensland. Possingham believes it should stay that way.

“It is unique in this respect – a true wilderness. If we don’t establish adequate and representative protected areas in Antarctica this unique and fragile ecosystem could be lost,” Professor Possingham said.

“Although we show that the risks to biodiversity from increasing human activity are high, they are even worse when considered together with climate change. This combined effect provides even more incentive for a better system of area protection in Antarctica,” he said.

Such protection would most likely come from an expansion of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. The Treaty, signed by twelve countries in 1959, established rules for the peaceful coexistence of researchers of all nations in the Antarctic region. The Protocols, signed into being in 1991 in Madrid, Spain, commits the Contracting Parties to "the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems and … designate Antarctica as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science."