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Ice-covered mountains and hills.
Photo Credit: Janice O'Reilly/Antarctic Photo Library
Mount William and surrounding glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the fastest warming regions of the planet. More of the Antarctic may undergo additional climate and human pressures in the coming decades, according to an assessment by an international panel of researchers published in a Science journal policy paper.

Growing pressure

Scientists warn of uncertain future for Antarctica from climate change, human activities

Antarctica faces an uncertain future amidst growing pressures from global climate change and human activities — a major conservation challenge that will require a commitment from scientists, policymakers and others with interests in protecting the environmental and scientific values of the southernmost continent.

That’s the conclusion from a group of international researchers and conservationists, including several National Science Foundation External U.S. government site-funded scientists, who identified the major challenges facing the Antarctic region in a policy forum article published July 13 by Science magazine.

The group used a horizon-scanning approach, a strategy used to identify conservation matters that are of both regional and global significance, to examine emerging trends and potential threats to the Antarctic terrestrial and marine regions. The authors note that Antarctica faces growing threats from global warming, ice loss, increased tourism, over-fishing in the region, pollution and invasive species. A longer-term concern is the exploitation of natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals.

The article was the result of a summit held last year in South Africa by Steven Chown of Monash University External Non-U.S. government site in Melbourne, Australia. The lead author of the Science article, Chown gathered experts in various fields, including science, government, and tourism, to weigh in on the diverse factors, from climate to human impacts, that may pose challenges to the Antarctic. The participants also came up with possible solutions and strategies to address certain issues.

“We looked at emerging conservation risks, and how issues are being dealt with now,” said Alison Murray External Non-U.S. government site, a molecular microbial ecologist at the Desert Research Institute External Non-U.S. government site in Reno, Nev., who was a co-author on the article. “The participants reflected on what we are doing right, what we need to take into consideration, and what we need to be aware of as we continue to have a strong presence in research and tourism in the Antarctic.”

The Antarctic Treaty System External Non-U.S. government site, which governs the continent, has worked well since it was established in 1962, but it is under pressure today from global climate changes and interest in the area’s natural resources, from fish to krill, from  oil and gas to minerals, according to Mahlon “Chuck” Kennicutt II External Non-U.S. government site, a professor of oceanography at Texas A&M University External Non-U.S. government site and another co-author on the policy paper.

“The Antarctic Treaty has worked well for the past 50 years, but we need to rethink how best to protect the continent from a range of growing threats,” Kennicutt said in a Texas A&M press release following the publication of the Science article, which coincided with an international meeting of Antarctic scientists and policymakers in Portland last month. [See related article — Changing with the times: SCAR meeting returns to U.S. for first time in 26 years.]

“The treaty forbids oil or gas development, but it’s possible that could be challenged in the years to come. Until now, energy companies have shown little interest in exploring the southern reaches of our planet because of the harsh conditions; the distance to market and the lack of technologies make it a very expensive commercial proposition,” Kennicutt said.

“In the 1960s, most believed that drilling on the North Slope of Alaska was not economical, and in less than 30 years, it became one of the world’s major sources of oil,” he noted. “Deep-water drilling today is practiced worldwide and subfloor completion technologies are rapidly advancing, so barriers in the past may soon be overcome increasing the threat to Antarctica in the not-so-distant future.”

Said Murray, “In the end, we hope that this effort and the article enhance the conversation between scientists, decision makers and the Antarctic Treaty System.” 

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs