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SOURCE: ABC News (Australia)

DATE: July 16, 2020

SNIP: Antarctica is one of the most untouched and remote regions left on the planet, but new research shows that it’s not as untouched as we thought it was.

In the study published today in Nature, researchers found that people have accessed more than two-thirds of the continent, and that the proportion of “inviolate” areas, or places not impacted by people is shrinking.

Only a small number of specially protected areas have been sanctioned under the Antarctic Treaty — an international agreement to preserve the scientific, environmental and cultural value of specific sites — and very few of those areas haven’t suffered from some form of human impact, according to study co-author Steven Chown of Monash University.

“Antarctica still has a fair bit of wilderness but it’s not properly protected,” he said.

Professor Chown and colleagues are calling for a significant expansion of Antarctic areas that are kept permanently free of people, in order to ensure that its unique biodiversity is conserved.

For the first time, researchers analysed more than 2.7 million records of human activity in Antarctica over 200 years to establish a thorough picture of our influence over the region.

While most of the continent is still technically wilderness, much of that is the ice-covered interior that doesn’t support much biodiversity.

Most human activity — predominantly research and tourism — happens in the ice-free and coastal regions, said Sharon Robinson of the University of Wollongong, who wasn’t involved with the research.

“Wherever there’s an ice-free area you get biodiversity,” said Professor Robinson, who studies mosses and lichens.

There are currently 72 specially protected areas in Antarctica.

“The problem is most of the

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are near stations, Professor Robinson said.

“They were mostly set up so that science could take place, and so you didn’t have people building on things that were being studied,” she said.

When people visit an area even once, they run the risk of introducing pathogens — things like microbes and plant spores — which have the potential to permanently alter the ecology of the region.

“If you look at the overall number of people and expeditions and stations being built, it’s definitely on the rise,” Professor Chown said.

“In the pre-COVID tourist year, we’re up to about 50,000 visitors a year.”

Early stations would bury their waste as landfill, rather than transporting it back to their countries of origin.

That was OK as long as it remained frozen, but some of these landfill sites are in danger of thawing, Professor Robinson said.

“That’s one of the big concerns with climate change is when the permafrost melts there’s all this buried [waste] from the 1950s,” she said.

“Everything from fuel to batteries to dead huskies — that’s already starting to melt and there’s this concern about what to do to clean those up.”

“Unless we actually protect these places they’re going to disappear before we know what is there and what those organisms can do,” Professor Robinson said.