Antarctica's New Scourge: Tourists

Number of humans is soaring in a fragile ecosystem

By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff

Posted Jun 18, 2014 3:52 PM CDT

(Newser) – 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.

A photo of Antarctica from Jan. 16, 2014.
A photo of Antarctica from Jan. 16, 2014.   (Land Rover via AP Images)
In this Jan. 20, 2013 photo, the distant Royal Society Range, photographed from Ross Island, Antarctica, soars 13,200 feet above McMurdo Sound.
In this Jan. 20, 2013 photo, the distant Royal Society Range, photographed from Ross Island, Antarctica, soars 13,200 feet above McMurdo Sound.   (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
This Jan. 20, 2013 photo shows tourists near Castle Rock on Crater Hill on Ross Island, Antarctica.
This Jan. 20, 2013 photo shows tourists near Castle Rock on Crater Hill on Ross Island, Antarctica.   (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
In this Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 photo, sightseers board an over-snow vehicle on Hut Point Peninsula of Ross Island in Antarctica.
In this Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 photo, sightseers board an over-snow vehicle on Hut Point Peninsula of Ross Island in Antarctica.   (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
In this Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 photo, a sightseeing helicopter lands near New Zealand's Scott Base on Ross Island, Antarctica.
In this Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 photo, a sightseeing helicopter lands near New Zealand's Scott Base on Ross Island, Antarctica.   (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
In this Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 photo, cross-country skiers pass a survival shelter on Hut Point Peninsula of Ross Island, Antarctica.
In this Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 photo, cross-country skiers pass a survival shelter on Hut Point Peninsula of Ross Island, Antarctica.   (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
In this Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 photo, US researchers from McMurdo Station scale nearby Castle Rock for recreation on Ross Island, Antarctica.
In this Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 photo, US researchers from McMurdo Station scale nearby Castle Rock for recreation on Ross Island, Antarctica.   (AP Photo/Rod McGuirk)
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