The fanny-pack set is now the bane of even Antarctica's existence: A new study published in PLoS Biology is warning that, yes, tourists are threatening the frigid environment of the globe's least populated continent. "Many people think that Antarctica is well protected from threats to its biodiversity because it's isolated and no one lives there," a study author tells Phys.org. That may have once been true, but tourism has exploded over the course of the past two and a half decades, from 5,000 annually in 1990 to about 40,000 currently. Those numbers, combined with a burgeoning number of research facilities and the infrastructure they require, are wreaking havoc on a vulnerable habitat.
There are a couple of factors at work, among them the fact that humans are swarming to the ice-free areas that make up less than 1% of Antarctica. Those zones—of which only 1.5% is protected by international treaty—contain the majority of the continent's native species, which are relatively few in number. As a result, says another researcher, "Antarctica has been invaded by plants and animals, mostly grasses and insects, from other continents." Current protections are "inadequate by any measure," says the study.