Life Science Environment Earth’s last untouched wilderness? Antarctica is in trouble, but not all hope is lost

Earth’s last untouched wilderness? Antarctica is in trouble, but not all hope is lost

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Antarctica is viewed as Earth’s last great ‘untouched’ wilderness, but world-first research has revealed its precious ecosystem is in greater peril than previously thought.

Of Earth’s seven continents, Antarctica is the only one that has no cities, agriculture or industry.

It has been 200 years since the first recorded sighting of the southernmost continent by Russian explorers, but until now scientists have been unable to fully gauge the impact of human activity on Antarctica’s environment and biodiversity.

On Thursday, a groundbreaking Australian study Antarctica’s wilderness fails to capture continent’s biodiversity published in the journal Nature debunked the notion of Antarctica as a great ‘untouched’ wilderness.

“Recent assessments of Earth’s dwindling wilderness have emphasised that Antarctica is a crucial wilderness in need of protection,” the report said.

“Yet human impacts on the continent are widespread, the extent of its wilderness unquantified, and the importance thereof for biodiversity conservation unknown.”

Using a data set of 2.7 million human activity records spanning the past two centuries, a team of researchers led by Monash University found humans have set foot almost everywhere on Antarctica, aside from some large, central areas that were negligibly affected by people.

While 99.6 per cent of the continent “can still be considered wilderness”, less than a third of it is truly untouched, the report said.

Pristine areas, free from human interference, cover a much smaller area (less than 32 per cent of Antarctica) and are declining as human activity escalates.’’

Worryingly, Antarctica’s biodiversity – even in the areas largely free of human activity – was worse than expected, with many important wildlife species not located within the areas of the continent that are free from human activity.

For example, just 16 per cent of the continent’s Important Bird Areas, areas identified internationally as critical for bird conservation, were within these areas.

The researchers also found that the vast majority of Antarctica’s ‘untouched’ or negligibly impacted areas lack protection as they are not part of Antarctica’s Specially Protected Area network.

Urgent expansion of Antarctica’s network of specially protected areas can both reverse this trend and secure the continent’s biodiversity,’’ the report said.

The study’s findings are alarming, but researchers hope they will serve as a wake-up call for the world to take action and conserve Antarctica’s wilderness and biodiversity.

A group of people shoot photos emperor penguins in the Ross Sea near McMurdo Station, Antarctica
“Swift action” is needed to protect Antarctica, researchers say. Photo: Getty

“While the situation does not look promising initially, the outcomes show that much opportunity exists to take swift action to declare new protected areas for the conservation of both wilderness and biodiversity,” study lead author Rachel Leihy said.

Co-author Steven Chown said the study showed that research using large data sets can provide new insights and answers to questions “that have long proven thorny for environmental policymakers”.

“This work offers innovative ways to help the Antarctic Treaty Parties take forward measures to secure Antarctica’s wilderness,” he said.