Visitors leave Antarctica open to invasive species

"Although our study shows that the risks to biodiversity from increasing human activity are high, they are even worse when considered together with climate change," says Hugh Possingham. (Credit: Matt Amesbury/U. Exeter/Flickr)

Antarctica’s ice-free areas—home to most of the continent’s biodiversity—needs better protection from human impact and climate change, say environmental scientists.

University of Queensland researcher Justine Shaw says most of Antarctica’s biodiversity occurred in the less than one percent of the continent, which is permanently ice-free. Of that small area, only 1.5 percent belongs to the Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty System.


A new study has found that many of the continent’s ice-free protected areas are at risk from invasive species.

Shaw says the Antarctic continent’s tiny ice-free area, where most of the native wildlife and plants are found, need adequate and representative protected areas.

“With more research facilities being built and increasing tourism to Antarctica, the simple ecosystems are at risk from human activities including pollution, trampling, and invasive species such as insects and grass,” Shaw says.

More than 40,000 people visit Antarctica each year.

Shaw’s study found that all 55 areas designated for protection of land-based biodiversity were close to sites of human activity, with seven at high risk for biological invasion. Five of the distinct ice-free eco-regions have no protected areas.

‘A true wilderness’

The study, published in PLOS Biology, shows that Antarctica’s protected area system fell well short of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets—an international biodiversity strategy that aims to reduce threats to biodiversity, and to protect ecosystems, species, and genetic diversity.

“Many people think that Antarctica’s biodiversity is well protected because it’s isolated and no one lives there, but it is at risk,” says Shaw. “Our study found that the protected area system of Antarctica ranks in the lowest 25 percent of assessed countries.”

Hugh Possingham, of the National Environmental Research Program (NERP) Decisions Hub, says Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth without cities, agriculture, or mining.

“It is unique in this respect—a true wilderness—and if we don’t establish adequate and representative protected areas in Antarctica this unique and fragile ecosystem could be lost,” he says.

“Although our study shows that the risks to biodiversity from increasing human activity are high, they are even worse when considered together with climate change.

“The combined effect provides even more incentive for a better system of area protection in Antarctica.”

The NERP Environmental Decisions Hub, University of Queensland’s School of Biological Sciences, the Australian Antarctic Division, and Monash University’s School of Biological Sciences supported the research. Researchers from the Australian Antactic Division and Monash University also contributed to the study.

Source: University of Queensland