Story at a glance
- Tourists to Antarctica threaten the continent’s unique lifeforms, with tourists unwittingly carrying foreign seeds, spores and microbes on their clothing and belongings.
- To date, 11 known nonnative invertebrate species are established in Antarctica.
- Scientists have said monitoring and biosecurity efforts must be developed quickly to keep the continent “pristine.”
With the closest continent more than 700 miles away, it's easy to think of Antarctica as an isolated, virtually untouched region. But it’s busier than most would imagine, and increased visitation there is also bringing new species, threatening the native ecosystem.
The southernmost continent on the globe, Antarctica is a frozen landmass encircled by the strongest ocean current on the planet. It’s virtually uninhabited, save for a few unique lifeforms that have evolved to cope with its harsh climate. But global warming is changing that climate rapidly.
The Antarctic peninsula is one of the fastest heating regions on the planet, and melting glaciers have exposed bare ground.
Invasive species are already colonizing newly exposed grounds, The Guardian reported, brought to Antarctica unintentionally by tourists carrying foreign seeds, spores, and microbes on their clothing and equipment.
Past research has found that visitors to Antarctica who hadn’t properly cleaned their clothes or belongings carried an average of 9.5 seeds each. Tourists can also carry millions of microbes with them, many of which are left behind.
One such invader is the annual meadowgrass, a highly aggressive weed found in practically every corner of the world with the potential to outcompete other plants and crops, according to the Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International. It’s also basically indestructible, with the ability to tolerate trampling, mowing and frozen conditions, though it does respond to some chemical control.
Tourism in Antarctica has also brought invasive wildlife to the region.
In a 2012 study, three new nonnative springtail species were identified in the South Shetland Islands, a cluster of islands just north of the Antarctic peninsula.
Scientists at the time said the reason for the “high level of occurrence” of nonnative species on one of the islands, Deception Island, was a combination of its high level of human visitation and “relatively benign” habitat. Two of the springtail species identified posed a high risk of becoming invaders, they said, and advised for the “urgent” adoption of effective biosecurity measures to protect the “unique and vulnerable ecosystems of this region.”
To date, 11 known nonnative invertebrate species — including springtails, mites, a midge and an earthworm — have established footholds in Antarctica, according to a study published by the Australian Antarctic Division, part of the Australian Department of Agriculture, earlier this year.
Researchers mapped the last five years of planes and ships visiting the continent, finding that most nonnative species there aren’t yet a threat to Antarctica’s native environment.
But the region is getting busier with the construction of new research facilities and more tourism activities planned.
To keep the continent “pristine,” scientists and members of the Antarctic Treaty must better prepare for the “inevitable” arrival of more nonnative species, researchers said, but time is of the essence. If monitoring efforts and pre-established response plans aren’t quickly and adequately developed, the world’s last remaining wilderness could change forever.
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