Antarctic biodiversity lies outside inviolated wilderness | Polarjournal
Antarctica is a natural paradise with a great diversity of species despite the seemingly hostile climate. From the large emperor penguins to bacteria and viruses, almost 23,000 known species find a home here. But human influence does not stop here, according to Leihy and her colleagues. Photo: Michael Wenger

Antarctica is considered a prime example of untouched wilderness, virtually free of human influences. Here, man should only be a guest, nature with animals, plants and the harsh climate swing the scepter. But a study by an international research team has now found that humans influence larger areas of the Antarctic continent than previously thought, and that the diversity of Antarctic life lies not in these completely untouched regions.

The team, led by PhD student Rachel Leihy and Dr Steven Chown from Monash University in Melbourne (AUS), looked at which regions of Antarctica have the highest human impact within the past 200 years and which areas are in fact still free of any direct influence.

“This makes Antarctica the world’s second-largest intact terrestrial wilderness after the boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere.”

Leihy et al. (2020)

By their definition, where there are no visible traces or negligible human activity within at least 10,000 square kilometers, about 99.6 percent of the continent would be untouched wilderness. “This makes Antarctica the world’s second-largest intact terrestrial wilderness after the boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere,” the scientists note. They then refined the definition to those areas that had never actually been touched by a human (Inviolate Antarctic Wilderness IAW), but this figure was put into perspective at just 31.7 percent of Antarctica’s area. Of these, the two largest areas are in East Antarctica and around the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf. “This makes Antarctica the world’s second-largest intact terrestrial wilderness after the boreal forests of the Northern Hemisphere,” the scientists note.

According to the study, almost 5,000 people come to Antarctica each year, primarily to the stations. But the number is immediately increased if you add the tourists who travel to Antarctica every year. Most of it to the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the areas with the highest biodiversity. Photo: Michael Wenger

Antarctica is not an lifeless desert, but has a relatively high biodiversity. The study therefore also examined the extent to which these two defined areas overlapped with the regions where high biodiversity had been recorded. This revealed a surprising picture: While the researchers did not find areas with high biodiversity in the completely untouched wilderness regions of the IAW, it was found that only 16-25 percent of areas with high biodiversity were in the area of NIAW. The former also makes sense, since it would have been necessary for people to stay in the area in order to capture biodiversity. However, the second result shows that most areas with high biodiversity are located in the few regions that are under human influence. “This situation is unique in the world,” the researchers write in their work. This is because wilderness is usually taxed, among other things, by biodiversity.

Penguins and many other creatures can be found on the few ice-free sites in Antarctica. Humans also visit these places in order to carry out research or a station there or to be able to show visitors the biodiversity at all. Photo: Michael Wenger

Another aspect of the results, according to the team, is that the IAW, the completely untouched areas, are fragmented by human activities and cannot form contiguous areas. This is important from an environmental point of view. But the researchers also say that no biodiversity figures are yet available from these areas. However, they imply that other studies in glaciated areas had discovered surprisingly high species numbers. Finally, Rachel Leihy and her colleagues are calling for the extension of special protection zones, known as ASPA, in order to better protect biodiversity in people’s increasingly frequented zones. These zones are already defined by the Antarctic Contracting States and are explicitly protected from visits by tourists. But the pressure is growing, both directly due to increasing visitor numbers and indirectly due to the warming of the region and its consequences.

“Opportunities to spread the conservation messages about our wilderness areas are becoming increasingly valuable.”

Amanda Lynnes, IAATO

Amanda Lynnes, IAATO Director of Environmental and Science Coordination, said: “We welcome a recent study in the journal Nature, which enhances our understanding of the extent of human presence in Antarctica since the continent was first sighted 200 years ago. Here at IAATO, the ongoing protection of the Antarctic environment has shaped our mission and vision and we acknowledge the different perspectives of what constitutes wilderness and the challenges it brings, promoting a culture with environmental protection at its heart.”
She also states that IAATO not only takes the existing ASPAs and all biodiversity protection rules very seriously, but is also proud to work with the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) to develop a Systematic Conservation plan for the Antarctic Peninsula. “Opportunities to spread the conservation messages about our wilderness areas are becoming increasingly valuable. Responsible travel can be part of the solution to protecting our special places.”

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

Link to the study:

Leihy et al (2020) Nature 583 Antarcticas wilderness fails to capture continents biodiversity, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2506-3

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