By Mark Cardwell

Antarctica is a lonely place. Surrounded by the frigid waters of the Southern Ocean, it is the Earth’s southernmost continent. It is also a frozen landmass nearly twice the size of Australia, with 98 per cent of its surface covered in 2-km-thick ice.

Protected from mining and other resource exploitation by international treaty since 1959, Antarctica is designated a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science.”

But that could soon change if several worrying trends continue, suggest the 23 international academics who co-authored a new ecological study of Antarctica (PLOS Biology).

And though Antarctica is far from the world’s major commercial shipping lanes, a Canadian co-author says the marine industry can play an important role in protecting the fragile region. “Despite the pristine-looking nature of Antarctica’s landscape, the biodiversity there is challenged like everywhere else,” said Peter Stoett, a political scientist and the new Dean of Social Sciences and Humanity at the University of Ontario’s Institute of Technology in Oshawa.

According to Stoett, who met with his co-authors in Monaco to assess biodiversity loss in Antarctica using twenty criteria known as the Aichi Targets, increasing human activity in and around Antarctica is beginning to pose serious problems for life in the region. “More and more people are visiting Antarctica through tourism, and overfishing continues to be an issue,” said Stoett. 

He estimated that dozens of ships now carry between 20,000 and 30,000 passengers and crew members annually to Antarctica during the region’s brief summer sailing season. Depending on destination and length of trip, Antarctica-bound ships sail from ports in Chile, Argentina, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Shetland Islands, Australia and New Zealand. Dozens of commercial fishing vessels are also active in the region, as are Japanese whalers.

Those problems pale in comparison, however, to the impacts that worldwide trends like warmer oceans, melting ice cover and transnational pollution are having on the region. “Biodiversity in the Antarctic region has often fallen between the cracks – no pun intended, given the cracks in ice cover that are developing there,” Stoett told Canadian Sailings in May when the study was released and he was finishing up his 18-year career at Montreal’s Concordia University. “We need to be vigilant and aware of what is happening.”

The study’s authors, he added, recommend the international community preserve the ban on mining and resource exploitation when it expires in 2050. “With the costs and difficulties involved in sailing in the Southern Ocean, it’s doubtful that mining would be profitable,” said Stoett.  “But it would be best not to find out.”

He said Antarctica urgently requires a governance structure that can control human entry and activity in the region. “To protect natural resources, we need a more concerted effort that includes things such as the effects of tourism and better monitoring of dedicated conservation areas,” said Stoett. “We need a more comprehensive science and policy research platform for Antarctic conservation, and we need to realize that contributions to climate change, marine debris, and ocean acidification are having serious impacts not just on photogenic penguins but on all the surprisingly robust biodiversity in the region.”

Marine shippers, he added, can help to preserve that biodiversity, which he likened to the proverbial canary in the coal mine for life everywhere on Earth. “Shippers play a hugely important role in the stewardship of our oceans,” said Stoett.  “Many of the issues facing Antarctica resonate with them because they have adjusted many of their operating procedures and practices to meet those challenges in recent years. “Their experience and concern with protecting biodiversity in all the world’s oceans is a positive example of what could and should be done.”