Antarctica is experiencing dynamic human disturbances that have serious implications for the future health of this important ecosystem, a group of scientists, including Colorado State University researcher Diana Wall, say in a new report in Science.
“This is an environment undergoing rapid changes from the isolated landscape we once knew,” said Wall, a University Distinguished Professor at Colorado State and director of the university’s School of Global Environmental Sustainability.
She co-authored the Policy Forum article July 13 with a group of international colleagues. In the article, the researchers present a call-to-action for scientists, policy makers, and concerned citizens to quickly address the challenges facing Antarctica.
Using a horizon scanning approach, the authors of the paper identified conservation matters of regional and global significance, with both short-term and long-term outlooks. Short-term threats facing the region include climate change impacts on marine systems and marine resource use, ocean acidification, invasive alien species, pollution, habitat alteration, and regulatory challenges within the Antarctic Treaty system. Long-term threats accounted for a 50-year timeline of climate change impacts on terrestrial and marine systems, and consequences to marine organisms as ocean acidification intensifies.
“This is the first time we’ve brought together experts in everything on the Antarctic terrestrial and marine environments, to find out what the big issues are for species and eocsystems,” Wall said. “We are seeing an urgency of issues that are converging on Antarctica and they are affecting species and ecosystems much faster than we thought.”
Wall has spent 22 seasons in Antarctic Dry Valleys examining the response of soil biodiversity and ecosystem processes to environmental change. In 2005, Wall Valley in Antarctica was named for her achievements.
Earlier this year, she visited the Antarctic’s Palmer Station as one of only three scientists chosen for a White House Blue Ribbon Panel to evaluate the future of U.S. research in Antarctica. She also is this year’s recipient of the 2012 SCAR President’s Medal for Excellence in Antarctic Research from the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research – an interdisciplinary committee of the prestigious International Council for Science. The award is presented once every three years.
Wall and authors of the Science article anticipate human activities in the region will grow. Tourism and scientific exploration may mean the prospects of permanent human settlement are nearing. The paper also notes that increasing pressures for mineral and hydrocarbon exploration may threaten the extraction ban currently in place by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. More traffic and environmental interruption to the region will mean greater challenges to conservation and governance through the Antarctic Treaty.
The authors agreed that the Antarctic Treaty System remains the best governance tool to address these challenges, but called for swifter, evidence-based decision-making and closer cooperation between the Treaty System and international stakeholders. To address rapidly evolving conservation threats, collaborative governance will be key to protecting Antarctica’s delicate ecosystems, the authors said.