Humans leave deep imprint on Antarctica’s biodiversity

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A research team including Conservation Scientist and Honorary Research Fellow Dr Bernard Coetzee from the Global Change Institute at Wits University has confirmed that Antarctica is more widely impacted by humans than previously thought.

Data from 2.7 million human activity records shows just how extensive human use of Antarctica has been over the last 200 years.

Antarctica is considered one of the Earth’s largest, most pristine remaining wildernesses. Yet since its formal discovery 200 years ago, the continent has seen accelerating and potentially impactful human activity; exactly how widespread this activity is has never been quantified until now.

“We mapped human activity records from between 1819 to 2018 across the Antarctic continent to assess the extent of wilderness areas remaining and its overlap with the continent’s biodiversity,” says Coetzee. Based in Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, he helped conceptualise the study and collated a spatial database from multiple sources to map the extent of human activity in Antarctica.


“In a region often thought of as remote, we showed that human activity has been extensive, especially in ice-free and coastal areas where most of its biodiversity is found. This means that “wilderness” areas do not capture many of the continent’s important biodiversity sites, but that an opportunity exists to conserve the last of the wild.”

It’s for the birds and more

The study found that only 16% of the continent’s Important Bird Areas, areas identified internationally as critical for bird conservation, are located within negligibly impacted areas, and little of the total negligibly impacted area is represented in Antarctica’s Specially Protected Area network.

High human impact areas, for example some areas where people build research stations or visit for tourism, often overlap with areas important for biodiversity. These results call for a reconsideration of areas of protection.

With the exception of some large areas mostly in the central parts of the continent, humans have set foot almost everywhere. Although many of these visited areas have only been negligibly affected by people, biodiversity is not as well represented within them as it should be.

Protect the last of the wilds

The transdisciplinary research team was led by Monash University in Australia and included representation from South Africa (Wits University) and researchers from the Netherlands and New Zealand. The work was published in the journal Nature.

Lead author, Rachel Leihy, a PhD student in the Monash School of Biological Sciences, points out: “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.”

Steven Chown, the corresponding author based at Monash University, explains that  informatics approaches using large data sets are providing new quantitative insights into questions that have long proven thorny for environmental policymaker saying, “This work offers innovative ways to help the Antarctic Treaty Parties take forward measures to secure Antarctica’s Wilderness.”

“While the data demonstrates that Antarctica is not as untouched as we think, the study puts forward intelligence for next steps as it points out which areas to demarcate as new conservation areas. It provides governments with a clear map or a blueprint of where to focus critical conservation work,” concludes Coetzee.

Click here to listen to Dr Bernard Coetzee’s interview about the Antarctica study on 702.

Dr Bernard Coetzee is a Conservation Scientist with the Global Change Institute at the University of the Witwatersrand, and lectures in conservation with the Organization for Tropical Studies, based in the Kruger National Park.

The Wits Global Change Institute is an enabling research platform of global significance and local impact, fostering informed action for adaptation and innovation in the rapidly changing southern African region.

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