Antarctica is the only continent without permanent human settlement – apart from a few polar explorers. Scientists have now investigated how untouched the icy part of the world is and how well the unique nature of Antarctica is protected.

Their result: 99.6 percent of the continent can be classified as wilderness. But only one-third the Antarctic land area is really untouched and free of human influences. And of the approximately 23,000 known species in this region, only seven percent live in untouched wilderness, because it is precisely the species-rich coastal areas that are most man-affected.

At first glance, Antarctica seems to be a prime example of untouched expanses: because of its isolated location and inhospitable climate, this continent has long escaped human settlement. Especially along its coasts and in the few ice-free places in summer, animals, plants and microbial communities could develop largely undisturbed. However, this has changed with the discovery of Antarctica more than 200 years ago. It is true that the Antarctic Treaty lays down strict rules on what is permitted in the context of, for example, research and exploration. Nevertheless, up to 4,000 people stay in Antarctica in the summer, mostly in the polar research stations positioned along the coasts, but also in some stations further inland. In addition, there have been tourists in recent years. But this means that the last untouched continent of the earth is increasingly exposed to disruptions caused by air traffic, vehicles and human activities.

Only about a third is still completely untouched

That’s why Rachel Leihy of Monash University in Melbourne (Australia) and her colleagues have now studied for the first time how far human influence in Antarctica has now reached and which areas can still be classified as completely untouched. To this end, they have analyzed data from historical records, scientific publications and reports and tourism statistics over the last 200 years. In total, they were able to collect more than 2.7 million data on people’s stays and routes on the continent.

The researchers compared these data with different definitions of the wild and with the distribution areas of Antarctic fauna and flora. Areas of more than 10,000 square kilometres are considered largely untouched in a definition, where there are no visible traces of human influence and where this can be classified as negligible.

“By this definition, the Antarctic wilderness still covers 99.6 percent of the continent’s land area,” Leihy and her colleagues report. “This makes Antarctica the second largest intact terrestrial wilderness after the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere.” But how large are the areas of this wilderness that are still completely untouched and have never been entered by humans? The researchers also investigated this on the basis of their data. It turned out that under these criteria only about 32 percent of the Antarctic area can be considered as truly untouched. “We have found that human activity is spread far across the continent, which makes the pristine wilderness highly fragmented,” Leihy and her team report. Larger contiguous wilderness areas of up to more than 800,000 square kilometres remain mainly in East Antarctica and on the edge of the Filchner Ice Shelf.

Most of biodiversity found in affected areas

This result raises the question of how much the Antarctic flora and fauna is affected by the human presence. For this purpose, Leihy and her team compared the data from the Antarctic Terrestrial Biodiversity Database and the mapping of the so-called important bird areas (IBA). The result: “The untouched wilderness areas do not include any of the areas with high biodiversity value,” the scientists note. These include, above all, the ice-free coastal areas in summer, but in many places they are already characterised by human presence. It turned out that only seven percent of the 23,000 species recorded in the database are found in the 99 percent of Antarctica’s declared wilderness. Of the bird areas deemed important, only 16 percent were in these areas. “Our results show that while the Antarctic wilderness encompasses almost the entire continent, it excludes most of its significant biodiversity,” leihy and her colleagues say.

In view of these results, the research team calls for the development of Antarctic protected areas and, above all, for the species-rich habitats to be included in them. At the same time, however, it is also important to protect the areas that are still completely untouched from future disturbances.

Cassidy Perry

A certified dietician specializing in diabetes care, Cassidy has over a decade of experience working with diverse patient backgrounds. She writes health-related articles for the Scientific Origin.