Less than a third of Antarctica is still entirely pristine and free from direct human influence, according to an analysis that scientists say shows the need for greater environmental protections in the remote region.
Scientific research on the continent ramped up in the 1950s, but in recent years human activity has accelerated further, with more researchers visiting to better understand the region’s impact on global sea level rise. Cruises to Antarctica are growing too: before the coronavirus pandemic, around 50,000 tourists had been expected to visit this year.
To see if the existing legal protections for Antarctica are sufficient in the face of such pressure, Steven Chown at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, and his colleagues analysed 2.7 million records covering the past two centuries of human activity on the continent, including newly digitised books by explorers. Based on four accepted definitions of wilderness used globally, they found that between 99.57 and 100 per cent of Antarctica could be considered wilderness.
However, when the team narrowed the definition to areas that have never been visited by humans, that figure dropped to around 32 per cent. Such untouched areas are considered important for the region’s biodiversity as a baseline to measure growing human impact, and because 12 countries have explicitly promised to protect them under the Antarctic Treaty, an agreement that promotes scientific cooperation in the region, among other aims.
“If you trample through a moss bed, the mosses can take years to recover. If we really want to keep Antarctica pristine, which is what all the nations signed up to the treaty have said, are there any left for them to keep? It turns out not much,” says Chown.
The results likely underestimate how much of the region has been touched by humans. Records of human activity miss some current research expeditions and data on Soviet-era activity can be patchy. The British Antarctic Survey (BAS) once stumbled across an unrecorded Russian building dating back to the 1970s on the south-east Antarctic Peninsula, for example.
Peter Convey at the BAS, who wasn’t involved in the study, says the research makes “a major contribution to our knowledge of human footprint within Antarctica, and provides data of potential use in the planning of further protected areas”.