Humans Are Taking Up a Surprisingly Large Swath of Antarctica

Australia’s Davis research station in Antarctica.
Image: Shaun Brooks

Antarctica is huge, stretching nearly 3,500 miles at its widest extent. Despite its enormous size, however, the frozen continent features a paltry amount of habitable space—a limited resource that humans have claimed as their own to the potential detriment of the local wildlife, as new research points out.

Typically, issues such as climate change and invasive species are cited as the most pressing environmental risks facing Antarctica, but as a paper published Monday in Nature Sustainability warns, the amount of space now occupied by humans is an under-appreciated and emerging environmental risk. Across Antarctica, buildings now occupy 390,000 square meters of land (4.2 million square feet, or 96 acres). While that may sound small, humanity’s “visual footprint”, or the area in which our activities is visible, occupies over 93,000 square kilometers (35,900 square miles).

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The study is the first to measure the human “footprint” on Antarctica, that is, the “spatial extent of human activities and associated impacts,” in the words of a research team led by Shaun Brooks from the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies at the University of Tasmania. This footprint comes from a variety of things, from research stations and tourist camps to airport runways and waste dumps. These activities, however, are “disproportionately concentrated” in the continent’s most sensitive areas, including areas occupied by Adélie penguins and other native wildlife. Alarmingly, the new research shows that over 80 percent of structures built on the continent are located in areas free of ice, which represents just 0.44 percent of the entire continent.

“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,” noted Brooks in a press release.

The Antarctic Treaty, established in 1961, now included 53 nations. All signatories to the treaty have pledged their commitment to protecting the Antarctic environment, but also to monitor the impacts of their activities on the continent. Despite this, data regarding the amount of space occupied by human activities are severely lacking. The authors of the new study sought to remedy this oversight by examining the total amount of space occupied by buildings and ground-based activities across the entire continent. Satellite imagery taken from 2005 to 2016 was used to “create the most accurate spatial dataset of human pressure across the entire Antarctic continent,” the authors wrote.

Not only is the human footprint on Antarctica affecting local wildlife, it also has the potential to negatively influence the science that’s being done there, the researchers warned. It’s a situation that’s set to get worse, as the rates of research activities and tourism are set to increase in the coming years.

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Robin Bell, president of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) and a research professor at Palisades Geophysical Institute (PGI), described the new study as a “nice piece of work” that “visually captured the impacts humans have had on Antarctica.” Bell, who wasn’t involved with the new study, said the paper “highlights how much of the continent remains empty and how we as a species tend to gather in the easy places to land.”

While its findings are worrying, the study should serve as a call to action. Other researchers should it when making decisions about Antarctic conservation and environmental management. As Brooks pointed out in a press release, the study should “encourage greater coordination and sharing of facilities between nations and users accessing Antarctica, to help limit the human footprint.”

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Indeed, the new research doesn’t mean human activities—especially scientific research—needs to stop or be curtailed dramatically. It simply means we need to create more sustainable ways of working on the frozen continent.

[Nature Sustainability]

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About the author

George Dvorsky

George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.