Antarctica is by the most pristine and least polluted continent on the planet. It has no towns, agriculture, or industry. But that doesn’t mean it’s unaffected by human activity.
Explorers and scientists first arrived on the shores of the continent more than 200 years ago. Since then, expeditions have crisscrossed the many kilometers of Antarctica’s ice sheet multiple times, leaving behind widespread impacts.
A study mapped that footprint for the first time, showing it’s much extensive than previously thought.
“We have been nearly everywhere,” Steven Chown, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne and senior author of the study in Nature, told AFP. “But these visits are often brief or to places covered in ice. The impacts in these areas are very small, negligible.”
The study looked at about 2.7 million records of human activity, spanning over 200 years and used it to quantify the extent of Antarctica’s wilderness and its representation of biodiversity. Up to 99.6% of the continent can still be considered wilderness, but only has a few biodiversity features, the researchers found.
This doesn’t mean that no damage has been done. The areas that have the least human impact don’t include some of the most important biodiversity of Antarctica, Chown explained. As it turns out, high human impact areas, including research facilities and tourism, usually overlap with areas important for biodiversity.
For example, of the continent’s bird areas that are critical for conservation efforts, only 16% are inside zones that the researchers identified at “negligibly impacted areas” — the rest have been affected. Meanwhile, land-based life can mostly be found in a few ice-free areas that comprise less than half of the continent’s surface, or approximately 45,000 square kilometers.
“Biodiversity is the basis for all life. It inspires us to be better people and to have greater appreciation of our place in the world—just think of albatrosses,” said Chown. “Antarctic biodiversity helps us understand what life may be like elsewhere in the Universe. Microbes can live by scavenging hydrogen gas from the air—remarkable!”
Pristine areas, free from human interference, cover less than 32% of Antarctica, and the figure is declining as human activity escalates, the study found. That’s why researchers called for an urgent expansion of Antarctica’s network of specially protected areas, which can reverse this trend and secure the continent’s biodiversity
Specially protected areas currently cover less than 2% of Antarctica but include 44% of identified species, including seabirds, plants, lichens, and invertebrates. Most of these areas were established in 1961 under the Antarctic Treaty System, which governs the continent and protects against human development. Given the scale of human impact, it’s high time for a revision of that list.
The study was published in the journal Nature.