Discovered over 200 years ago, Antarctica is often presented as a landmass where human presence has scarcely left a mark. However, researchers have now produced an extensive record of human activity on the southernmost continent and found that human activity is expanding in many areas that are important for biodiversity.
As reported in Nature, the team collected an incredible amount of data spanning the entire recorded history of the continent. They showed that while 99.6 percent of the continent is still wild, the pristine areas free from human interference are only 32 percent.
“We mapped 2.7 million human activity records from 1819 to 2018 across the Antarctic continent to assess the extent of wilderness areas remaining and its overlap with the continent’s biodiversity,” co-author Dr Bernard Coetzee, from the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, said in a statement.
“In a region often thought of as remote, we showed that in fact, human activity has been extensive, especially in ice-free and coastal areas where most of its biodiversity is found. This means that 'wilderness' areas do not capture many of the continent’s important biodiversity sites, but that an opportunity exists to conserve the last of the wild.”
When we think of Antarctica, our mind goes immediately to penguins, and yet only 16 percent of their habitat and those of many other birds are internationally protected, with many tourist and research stations overlapping with important regions for biodiversity. Some of the risks to the continent are unmistakable, such as growing infrastructure and vegetation trampling. Others are less obvious, such as pollution, microbial contamination, and dispersal of native and alien species.
“While the situation does not look promising initially, the outcomes show that much opportunity exists to take swift action to declare new protected areas for the conservation of both wilderness and biodiversity,” explained lead author Rachel Leihy, a graduate researcher in the Monash School of Biological Sciences.
The work only considers the direct actions of humans on the continent, not the indirect human impact from pollution, the hole in the ozone layer, and the unfolding climate crisis. The work also suggests it is not too late and that members of the Antarctic Treaty have the ability and means to safeguard the frozen continent. These members can help by promoting the expansion of evidence-based protected areas and re-thinking how to best balance the benefits of science and tourism on the continent with the imperative of protecting Antarctica before it is too late.