Antarctica faces a growing array of threats from human activities, including overfishing, tourism, oil and gas exploration, and climate change, according to an international group of researchers.
The overfishing over Antarctic krill is reducing a food source for penguins. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Protecting the continent may require revisiting the international agreements that govern its use, including the 50-year-old Antarctic Treaty, they write in an essay published yesterday in the journal Science.
The treaty and related agreements established Antarctica as a scientific preserve, set forth a series of regulations to protect the icy polar environment and banned military activity there.
But it may not be sufficient to preserve Antarctica's unique ecosystems for the next 50 years.
"The Antarctic Treaty System, acknowledged as a successful model of cooperative regulation of one of the globe's largest commons, is under substantial pressure," writes a team of 26 scientists from Europe, the United States, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, led by Steven Chown, a biologist at Monash University.
They recommend beefing up the agreements to use scientific data more effectively and speed up the pace of decisionmaking.
Ice, a habitat for food, shifts and melts
The most immediate threats to the southern continent include warming, ocean acidification and changes in the distribution of sea ice, which threaten to disrupt Antarctic ecosystems.
Sea ice, for example, is an important habitat for tiny marine organisms called krill and the penguins that eat them.
As the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed over the past three decades, the distribution of sea ice has shifted and the krill population has declined, along with the number of Adelie and chinstrap penguins, concluded a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Scientists believe the problem has been compounded by resurgent populations of krill-munching whales and seals, the rise of a commercial krill fishery in Antarctic waters, and overfishing that has reduced populations of fish species favored by penguins.
Warming could also aid invasive species carried to Antarctica by tourists and scientists, the researchers who authored the Science essay say. Studies have shown visitors often carry seeds on their clothing and gear.
Tourism brings an invasion
While most species from more temperate latitudes are unlikely to establish a toehold in harsh polar conditions, researchers worry that some cold-adapted plants from sub-Antarctic and sub-Arctic regions could survive, especially in relatively balmy west Antarctica and nearby islands.
Tourism and scientific traffic also increases the risk of pollution from vessel emergencies and the chance that visitors will disturb Antarctic wildlife.
And as climate change advances and the planet's population grows, there is also a chance that countries will seek to exploit Antarctic oil, gas and mineral resources.
Though such activities are banned under the Antarctic Treaty, those restrictions do not apply to nonmember countries. Meanwhile, the tools needed to plumb Antarctic resources are improving, and some nations are already staking claims to portions of the Antarctic seabed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
"Although the challenges of working in the Antarctic are considerable, technologies for oil, gas and mineral exploitation in remote regions have been developed or are advancing rapidly," the researchers write.
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