A Call to Protect Antarctica Better

Antarctica (Credit: cloudzilla/Flickr)Main Point:

With a surge in visitors to Antarctica, Antarctica’s ice-free land needs better protection from human activities, leading environmental scientists say.

Published in:

PLOS Biology

Study Further:

Antarctica has over 40,000 visitors a year, and with more and more research facilities being built in the continent’s tiny ice-free area, the ‘last wilderness on Earth’ is one of the planet’s least-protected regions say Dr Justine Shaw and Professor Hugh Possingham of the National Environmental Research Program’s Environmental Decisions Hub.

“Most of Antarctica is covered in ice, with less than one per cent permanently ice-free. Only 1.5 percent of this ice-free area belongs to Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty System, yet ice-free land is where the majority of biodiversity occurs,” says Dr Shaw.

In a new study, publishing in the open access journal PLOS Biology on June 17, Dr Shaw and her colleagues found that all 55 areas designated for protection of land-based biodiversity lie close to sites of human activity, seven are at high risk for biological invasions, and five of the distinct ice-free ecoregions remain completely unprotected.

Most of the Antarctic wildlife and plants live in the ice-free areas – and this is also where people most visit. Professor Steven Chown of Monash University explains that the ice-free areas contain very simple ecosystems due to Antarctica’s low species diversity, which makes its native wildlife and plants extremely vulnerable to invasion by exotic species.

“Antarctica has been invaded by plants and animals, mostly grasses and insects, from other continents. The very real current and future threats from invasions are typically located close to protected areas. Such threats to protected areas from invasive species have been demonstrated elsewhere in the world, and we find that Antarctica is, unfortunately, no exception,” says Prof. Chown.

Dr Shaw says the study shows that Antarctica currently falls well short of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets – an international biodiversity strategy that aims to reduce threats to biodiversity, and protect ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.

“When we compared Antarctica’s biodiversity protection with the protection provided in nations round the world, we found that Antarctica ranks in the lowest 25 per cent of assessed countries,” says Dr Shaw.

“Many people think that Antarctica is well protected from threats to its biodiversity because it’s isolated and no one lives there, however we show that’s not true,” she adds.

“We need to establish protected areas that are representative of Antarctic biodiversity to protect a diverse suite of native insects, plants and seabirds, many of which occur nowhere else in the world. We also need to ensure that Antarctic protected areas are not going to be impacted by human activities, such as pollution, trampling or invasive species.”

Prof. Possingham explains that Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth that has no cities, agriculture or mining. “It is unique in this respect – a true wilderness.  If we don’t establish adequate and representative protected areas in Antarctica this unique and fragile ecosystem could be lost,” he says.

“Although we show that the risks to biodiversity from increasing human activity are high, they are even worse when considered together with climate change. This combined effect provides even more incentive for a better system of area protection in Antarctica.”


Shaw JD, Terauds A, Riddle MJ, Possingham HP, Chown SL (2014) Antarctica’s Protected Areas Are Inadequate, Unrepresentative, and at Risk. PLOS Biol 12(6): e1001888. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001888, http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pbio.1001888


Dr Justine Shaw, NERP Environmental Decisions Hub and UQ, +61 (0)429 422 921 (Ireland time) shaw.justine@gmail.com   Twitter: @justine_d_shaw

Professor Hugh Possingham, NERP Environmental Decisions Hub and UQ, +61 (07) 3365 2527 or +61 (0)434 079 061 h.possingham@uq.edu.au  Twitter: @HugePossum

Professor Steven Chown, Monash University, Office: + 61(03) 9905 0097 or  +61 (0)499 780 433 steven.chown@monash.edu



This work was supported by the Environmental Decision Hub (National Environment Research Program Australia) and Australian Antarctic Science Project 4024. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interests:

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.



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