A call to better protect Antarctic biodiversity

It’s big, it’s valuable, it’s unique and it’s at risk

By Justine Shaw

The ‘last wilderness on Earth’ requires a better system of protected areas according to new research led by EDG researcher Dr Justine Shaw. That wilderness, of course, is Antarctica.

“Most of Antarctica is covered in ice, with less than 1% permanently ice-free,” says Shaw. “This ice-free land is where the majority of biodiversity occurs yet only 1.5% of these important areas belong to Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty System.”

Only 1% of Antarctica is free from ice. These areas are critical to the conservation of Antarctic biodiversity but only 1.5% of this ice-free space is formally protected. (Photo by Aleks Terauds)

Only 1% of Antarctica is free from ice. These areas are critical to the conservation of Antarctic biodiversity but only 1.5% of this ice-free space is formally protected. (Photo by Aleks Terauds)


Threats to the ecological integrity of Antarctica are accelerating because of a growing variety, intensity, and frequency of human activities and a rapidly changing climate. Biological invasions are most significant, with several established populations are already impacting native species in Antarctica.

Human activities in Antarctica typically take two forms: the activities of National Antarctic Programs (ie, scientists and their support personnel) and those that take place as part of fee-paying recreation (ie, tourists and their support personnel). Antarctica has over 40,000 visitors a year, and with more and more research facilities being built in the continent’s tiny ice-free area. Activities associated with science include construction of buildings, roads and fuel depots.

Growing instances of unintentional damage are also being recorded, such as the establishment of harmful non-indigenous species, sewage spills, point-source pollution, and destruction of vegetation. All human activities, be they tourism- or science related, have increased considerably over the last twenty years and are predicted to continue to do so.

its apparent protection status reflects management intent, not management outcomes.” 


Dr Shaw and colleagues determined how well the existing protected-area system represents terrestrial biodiversity and assessed the risk to protected areas from biological invasions, the region’s most significant conservation threat.

“Our assessment quantified the proportion of ice-free land that is protected,” explains Shaw. “We then examined how well these area represented Antarctic biodiversity using recently developed protected-area assessment metrics and quantified the level of threat these protected areas face from biological invasion using information from a recent, spatially explicit risk assessment.”

Their study found that all 55 areas designated for protection of land-based biodiversity lie close to sites of human activity. Seven are at high risk for biological invasions, and five of the distinct ice-free ecoregions have no protected areas at all.


Shaw says the study shows that protected areas in Antarctica currently fall well short of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets – an international biodiversity strategy that aims to reduce threats to biodiversity, and protect ecosystems, species and genetic diversity.

“When we compared Antarctica’s protected area system with the protected areas of nations round the world, we found that Antarctica ranks in the lowest 25% of assessed countries,” she says. “Many people think that Antarctica is well protected from threats to its biodiversity because it’s isolated and no one lives there, however we show that there are threats to Antarctic biodiversity.

“We need to establish protected areas that are representative of Antarctic biodiversity to protect a diverse suite of native insects, plants and seabirds, many of which occur nowhere else in the world. We also need to ensure that Antarctic protected areas are not going to be impacted by increasing human activities, such as pollution, trampling or invasive species.”

Professor Hugh Possingham, a co-author on the study, explains that Antarctica is one of the last places on Earth that has no cities, agriculture or mining. “It is unique in this respect – a true wilderness. If we don’t establish adequate and representative protected areas in Antarctica this unique and fragile ecosystem could be lost,” he says.

“Although we show that the risks to biodiversity from increasing human activity are high, they are even worse when considered together with climate change. This combined effect provides even more incentive for a better system of area protection in Antarctica.”

In a global context, the designation of Antarctica as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” under the Antarctic Treaty System is unique; no other continent has a similar level of apparent protection.

“This situation may be at least partly responsible for Antarctica’s repeated exclusion from global assessments of protected-area effectiveness,” says Shaw. “However, its apparent protection status reflects management intent, not management outcomes.

“The governance system is in place, through the Antarctic Treaty System for a better protected area system and unlike most of other places in the world there are few competing stakeholders for protected area establishment.

“Although the Antarctic environment is less utilised and populated than others, activities permitted on the continent such as road and building construction, vehicle traffic and waste disposal are having substantial impacts on biodiversity.

“What is required now is a systematic network designed to best conserve the biodiversity of Antarctica as a whole. Once a protected area is designated and human activity restricted, management efforts are relatively minimal compared to protected-area management requirements on other continents. And what we would gain would be a protected area network that everyone could truly be proud of.”

More info: Justine Shaw shaw.justine@gmail.com 


Shaw JD, A Terauds, MJ Riddle, HP Possingham & SL Chown (2014). Antarctica’s Protected Areas Are Inadequate, Unrepresentative, and at Risk. PLoS Biol 12(6): e1001888. doi:10.1371/journal. pbio.1001888

This article has also been translated into Spanish in DP en Espanol #E01. View article

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