Antarctica’s ice-free areas – home to most of the continent’s biodiversity – need better protection from human impact, says a group of Australian environmental scientists.
UQ researcher Dr Justine Shaw said most of Antarctica’s biodiversity occurred in the less than one per cent of the continent which is permanently ice-free.
Of that small area, only 1.5 per cent belongs to the Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty System.
A study by The University of Queensland in collaboration with the Australian Antarctic Division and Monash University has found that many of the continent’s ice-free protected areas are at risk from invasive species.
Dr Shaw, whose work is co-funded by the National Environmental Research Program (NERP), said the Antarctic continent’s tiny ice-free area, where most of the native wildlife and plants are found, needed 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,” Dr Shaw said.
More than 40,000 people visit Antarctica each year.
Dr 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.
The study showed 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 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,” said Dr Shaw.
“Our study found that the protected area system of Antarctica ranks in the lowest 25 per cent of assessed countries.”
Professor Hugh Possingham of the NERP Decisions Hub said Antarctica was 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,” Professor Possingham said.
“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 research is supported by the NERP Environmental Decisions Hub, UQ’s School of Biological Sciences, the Australian Antarctic Division and Monash University’s School of Biological Sciences.
The study, Antarctica’s protected areas are inadequate, unrepresentative and at risk, by Justine D. Shaw, Aleks Terauds, Martin J. Riddle, Hugh P. Possingham and Steven L. Chown, is published in PLoS Biology. See: http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001888
The Australian Government funds the National Environmental Research Program (NERP) to inform evidence-based policy and sustainable management of the Australian environment.