Research and tourism putting pressure on ‘sensitive’ Antarctic land

The human ‘footprint’ on Antarctica has been measured for the first time, with alarming findings: over 80 per cent of buildings on the continent are located in the minuscule 0.44 per cent of the land that is free of ice.

A new study from the University of Tasmania shows that the human footprint on Antarctica is having a major impact, despite 53 countries having signed the Antarctic Treaty to protect the continent’s sensitive – and once pristine – environment.

Buildings alone cover more than 390,000 square metres of land, while the visual footprint – the areas from which human activity can be seen – now extends to more than 93,000 square kilometres.

What’s more, the human impacts are the greatest on land that is also the most environmentally sensitive: the ice-free areas stretching just a few kilometres from the coast.

“Ice-free land supports the continent’s greatest diversity of flora and fauna, including iconic species such as Adelie penguins, and provides the most accessible areas for marine animals that breed on land,” said lead author and PhD student Shaun Brooks.

“We found that 81 per cent of the buildings in the Antarctic are located within just 0.44 per cent of the land that is free of ice.”

According to Brooks, growing research activity and tourism are expected to increase human pressure on the continent in the coming years, pitting access to the continent and international commitments to protect the Antarctic environment against each other.

“Hopefully our research can help to inform a sustainable balance between these competing imperatives,” Brooks said.

Image credit: Shaun Brooks

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