Humans are now taking up 80 per cent of the rare, ice-free areas found on the largest natural reserve on Earth. As a result, penguins, elephant seals and many of the other forms of wildlife that inhabit this area could suffer as a result of the amount of humans now occupying the sensitive land.
‘Ice-free land supports the continent’s greatest diversity of flora and fauna, including iconic species such as Adelie penguins, and provides the most accessible areas for marine animals that breed on land,’ said Shaun Brooks, the head of the research team at the University of Tasmania, that conducted the study. The research, the first study that has actively looked into this, has captured the effect of humans on Antarctica in a visual way, showing just how much impact the footprint has on the continent.
The new study suggests the burgeoning human footprint on Antarctica is an emerging environmental risk that desperately needs more attention. While climate change is usually considered the most important issue on Antarctica, this new research suggests that the space now occupied by humans is an ever-growing problem.
Although Antarctica is enormous in size, actual habitable areas are a limited resource that humans are claiming as their own. Antarctica itself stretches nearly to 14,000,000 square kilometres, with humans and their buildings now take up nearly 400,000 square metres. More alarmingly though is that human ‘activity’ covers more than 93,000 square kilometers of the continent. This ‘visual footprint’ mostly comes from research stations, tourist camps, airport runways and waste dumps.
Robin Bell, president of the American Geophysical Union said that the research ‘highlights how much of the continent remains empty and how we as a species tend to gather in the easy places to land.’
Before this study was conducted, the data regarding people and impact on Antarctica was severely lacking. The team that conducted the study aimed to rectify this by analysing the amount of space occupied across the entire continent. This was done by using a Geographic Information System that mapped differences in satellite imagery taken from 2005 to 2016.
Although the findings of the new research are worrying, experts highlight that it shouldn't mean ceasing human activities completely. Rather, more sustainable ways of working on the icy continent need to be developed in order to mitigate any potential damage. Researchers can use the study to help inform management decisions on balancing space for scientific use, and not disproportionately concentrating human activity. Although it can potentially harm wildlife on Antarctica, scientific research is still essential, and Brooks’ research should help future researchers in coming up with less intrusive or damaging working practices on the icy continent.
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