New conservation challenges for Antarctica
13 July 2012, by Adele Walker
Just a century ago Antarctica was one of Earth's last frontiers but human activity is beginning to pose a significant threat to the continent.
Palmer station on the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula
An international team of experts, including scientists from NERC's British Antarctic Survey (BAS), has set out the current and future conservation challenges facing the Antarctic in the journal Science.
In particular the team looked at how well the existing Antarctic Treaty System has protected the region from the threats of climate change and the increasing likelihood that Antarctica's natural resources will be exploited.
The work will help decision-makers develop policies that can effectively address the new and changing challenges facing this important region.
Central to the Antarctic Treaty System is the Antarctic Treaty itself, which came into force in 1961 to manage the nations operating in Antarctica and ensure the safe and peaceful future of the continent.
The system is considered a successful model of cooperation but it's coming under increasing pressure as more people – scientists and tourists – travel to and stay on Antarctica.
And the world's growing population, together with technological advances, means Antarctica's natural resources are more desirable and more accessible than ever.
The study identified the most immediate conservation threats facing Antarctica are the result of warming in the region, ocean acidification and changes in sea-ice distribution.
Lead author Professor Steven Chown, Head of Biological Sciences at Australia's Monash University, said climate change was particularly worrying.
'Climate change is increasing the risk of the introduction of non-indigenous species. Several alien species, which have track records of being highly invasive, are already present in the Peninsula region and the risks are growing,' he says.
Increased human activity in the region means risks from pollution and wildlife disturbance are increasing too. And the team believes that in fifty years' time the impact of climate change on land creatures, and the effects of ocean acidification on marine organisms, will grow.
So while the Antarctic Treaty System remains sound for now, faster decision-making and more collaboration will be vital for the long-term conservation of the Antarctic.
'The quick pace of change in much of the region is under-appreciated. There's warming in the Western Antarctic, changing species distributions, and a quickening in the rate of ice-loss, among other clear signs,' said Professor Chown.
BAS Environmental Manager Dr Kevin Hughes added, 'Antarctica faces new threats and impacts from rapid climate change and increasing human activity are tremendously worrying. Rapid and unified action by the Antarctic Treaty parties is crucial if the continent's biodiversity is to be protected for future generations.'
S L Chown, et al. Challenges to the future conservation of the Antarctic. Science Vol 337 no. 6091 pp 158-159 DOI: 10.1126/science.1222821
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