Antarctica under threat

Antarctic researchers are calling on policy makers to look ahead to future challenges and protect the polar continent from growing threats to its biosecurity, pressure to exploit its mineral, gas and oil resources, and the effects of its rapidly changing climate.

In a ‘Policy Forum’ article  published today in the leading international journal Science, twenty-six international experts — including Prof Peter Barrett of Victoria University of Wellington and Lou Sanson of Antarctica NZ — lay out the varied threats that Antarctica faces, such as overexploitation of marine resources, invasive species and pollution from human activities.

They urge policy-makers to resist pressures on the current treaty system, and strengthen its ability to conserve the Antarctic environment into the future.

The team of high-profile Antarctic researchers highlight immediate threats such as impacts from increased tourism and exploration, which can introduce invasive species, disturb wildlife and spread pollution from settlements and shipwrecks (of which there have been 12 in the last five years).

Looking 50 years in the future, the authors see climate change, ocean acidification and resource exploitation — of both fisheries and mineral resources — as major problems on the horizon.

“The capability of current conservation governance arrangements to deal with these challenges may be outpaced,” the authors state. “The greatest challenge will be addressing threats that are global in scale, but with impacts that are being realised most significantly in Antarctica.”

You read more in releases from Victoria University of Wellington and Monash University, Australia.

The Science Media Centre has rounded up the following expert commentary. Feel free to use these quotes in your reporting. If you would like to follow up, please contact the SMC (04 499 5476;

Lou Sanson, Chief Executive of Antarctica NZ, and a co-author on the paper, comments

“The impact of increasing climate variability on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean will be of increasing importance to New Zealand given much of our own oceanic circulation and weather patterns are driven by the Antarctic climate system. Changes to these processes will inevitably bring change to our own climate and ocean ecosystems. Already we are seeing  increasing speeds of westerly wind circulation pattern around Antarctica and changes to the Antarctic circumpolar ocean system.

“The impact of these changes ultimately on New Zealand’s fish stocks and weather are key reasons why we must continue to invest in Antarctic research as a country so close to Antarctica”

Prof Steven L. Chown, Monash University, and lead author of the paper comments:

“Interactions between resource use and climate change are especially significant threats. Several alien species, which have track records of being highly invasive, are already present in the Peninsula region and the risks are growing.

“The quick pace of change in much of the region is unappreciated. There’s warming in the west, changing species distributions, and a quickening in the rate of ice-loss, among other clear signs. The early explorers would certainly be surprised at what they’d find in Antarctica now. And by what’s being discussed as possibilities.”

Prof Chown visited New Zealand to discuss protection of the Antarctic last year. Listen back to an SMC interview with him here.

Prof David A. Wharton, Department of Zoology, University of Otago, comments

“Communities of terrestrial organisms in Continental Antarctica are amongst the simplest and most vulnerable, with geographical isolation a major cause of their low biodiversity. As Chown and his coauthors point out, these communities are vulnerable to human activity and the introduction of nonindigenous species.

“Living in one of the most extreme environments on earth they are particularly sensitive to climate change. We urgently need to increase our understanding of these organisms and to ensure their protection.”

Joanna Mossop, Senior Lecturer, Law Faculty, Victoria University studies International Environmental Law, with a focus on Antarctica. She comments:

“It is important to remember that, although the Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) is one of the best functioning international organisations, it has limits.

“Not every country is a party, so many countries are not bound by the rules or decisions of the ATS.  Moreover, decisions have to be made by consensus in the ATS, and so divisions about appropriate responses among states can slow down or prevent rules developing to respond to new crises.

“In terms of environmental effects of activities on the Antarctic continent, there is a treaty, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, that is designed to provide guidance on environmental protection. However, this treaty also has its limitations.

“First, there is no ability for the ATS parties to veto an activity another party allows. This was seen when the international community expressed concern about the Russian plans to drill into the subterranean Lake Vostok, but the Russians continued regardless.

“Second, the ban on exploitation of minerals only applies until 2044, at which time parties to the ATS may call for the negotiation of a regime regulating resource exploitation.

“Third, the Protocol does not apply to many of the significant activities in the Southern Ocean such as fishing and whaling, for which separate regimes apply.

“There are many success stories connected with the operation of the ATS.  However, the authors of the article are correct that that changing climate and increasing human pressure on resources means that the future of the Antarctic Treaty System may not be as rosy.

“With growing numbers of states party to the ATS, there will be increasingly divergent opinions about how to respond to challenges, meaning consensus decision-making will be even more difficult.  The hope is that the unique quality of Antarctica will convince states to put aside their individual interests in favour of decisions that will protect this precious area.”

Prof Mary A. Sewell, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland, comments:

“My greatest concern for Antarctica is that, after many years of protection from the effects of these issues, Antarctica is simultaneously having to deal with four at once:

1.  Fishing – for both toothfish and krill. In the toothfish we know almost nothing about the biology, so our “management” is informed guess-work, and there are also high levels of illegal fishing (much of it on dodgy fishing boats, that tend to sink).

2.  Climate change – due to the cold, low carbonate conditions in the Southern Ocean, the impact of ocean acidification will be seen within our lifetimes.

3.  Deep sea drilling and mining – little known about deep sea animals; environmental impacts in events of disasters almost certainly disastrous.

4.  Invasive species – invasions of crabs to the Antarctic Peninsula; potential for terrestrial and marine invaders due to increasing human traffic (tourists) and long-term occupation of the continent.”