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Altering Antarctica
Geoff Manaugh, 31 Jul 06


There are a wide variety of overlooked and forgotten ways in which humans participate with, and alter, the biological systems around them. A few seeds, trapped in the soles of our shoes, can cross oceans with us in airplanes, bringing gardens, and weeds, and parasite species to the other side of the earth; trace amounts of infectious diseases can cling to our clothes and decimate livestock several nations away; snakes, rats, spiders, mosquitoes – all can easily ride the ships and planes of globalization.

Our economy is crowded with invasive stowaways intent on surviving elsewhere – even if survival means irretrievably altering the new host environment.

In other words, travel itself can be something of a biological activity: we do the migratory work of other species for them. We take them with us. Importations of even the smallest microbe can sufficiently alter an ecological niche, opening it up to further changes – then compounding over time into whole new landscapes. What would happen naturally is accelerated: a thousand years in a decade.

It shouldn't surprise us, then, to learn that strange things are afoot in Antarctica.

"Non-native species are already establishing themselves in what is one of the world's last great wildernesses," New Scientist informed us last month. Indeed, "a few alien species have already set up shop on the continent, including the North Atlantic spider crab (Hyas araneus), as well as various species of invertebrates and grass."

The entire continent, some believe, is seeing just the beginning of an ecosphere-wide influx of non-native – or "alien" – organisms. These overly ambitious visitors are brought in by ships, by scientists, by tourists – even washed into bays and glacial inlets by natural tides. The introduction of outsiders doesn't have to be deliberate, nor its effects immediately visible; the Antarctic arrival of alien organisms can stem from an event as simple as clearing your cruise ship's ballast too close to certain currents.

Then, ten years later, grass can be found dotting islands and peninsulas.

In June 2006, the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) was held in Edinburgh, Scotland. As New Scientist tells us, the meeting was an attempt to work out a suite of broad international measures "aimed at stopping non-native microbes, plants and animals from invading the Antarctic. Visiting ships are being urged not to dump ballast water from other oceans, and the invading aliens problem was given top priority for research."

As the meeting's own website tells us:

Concerned that a rapidly changing and warming climate on the Antarctic Peninsula could increase the risk of non-native species establishing themselves on the continent itself, the meeting also backed a series of recommendations made by New Zealand. These include development of a code of conduct for land-based activities – a set of minimum standards that all visitors, including tourists and scientists, would have to follow.

It is worth remembering, of course, that private travel to Antarctica has never been more popular.

If predictions are right, we read, returning to New Scientist, the numbers of tourists could top 100,000 within a decade. Many tour companies try to ensure that visitors' boots and clothes are clean before they step ashore, but it is impossible to prevent seeds and micro-organisms from being accidentally introduced. (Perhaps somewhat predictably, US delegates rejected moves to limit the size of ships allowed to land tourists, and to discourage the building of tourism facilities.)

However, those visitation forecasts could actually be conservative. Climate change has struck Antarctica particularly hard, and the continent has not lost any of its strange appeal to those stricken by wanderlust. Worryingly, Antarctica's atmosphere is actually the fastest-warming place in the world:

Although rapid warming at the surface of Antarctica has been well-documented, even more rapid increases in mean temperature have been recorded at altitudes much higher above the continent. What's more, it is the largest warming of its kind found anywhere on Earth.

Thus, where balmy weather, package tourism, and flexible infrastructure arrive at the same time, we can foresee dramatic changes in the local landscape.

Alan Burdick's Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion – recently published in paperback – explores what has come to be known as "invasion biology," or the accelerated introduction of non-native species into distant ecosystems. How did brown tree snakes, for instance, come to infest the Pacific island of Guam? Answer: They hitched rides in the wheel wells of U.S. military aircraft, then digestively extinguised Guam's native bird population.

Burdick writes:

To a degree, invasion biology can be thought of as evolutionary biology turned inside out. As Darwin recognized, the appearance of a new species is frequently the downwind result of an invasion – a finch blown off course, say – that occurred generations earlier. (...) The invasion biologist... is drawn to those first critical moments of colonization under way right now, all around: the incidents of travel, the tooth-and-claw contests that unfold in the subsequent days, weeks, months, years. Why are some organisms more successful invaders than others? Why do some ecosystems seem particularly susceptible to intrusion? Are there general laws of invasion?Those questions are far from being answered, but their solution is increasingly urgent. "Now, as never before," Burdick warns, "exotic plants and organisms are traversing the globe, borne on the swelling tide of human traffic to places where nature never intended them to be.

As climate change transforms the south polar continent into a tempting niche for early settlers, biological invasion now seems to be Antarctica's de facto state of affairs.

Simultaneously, however, biological life in the Antarctic is changing due to other, more astrophysical reasons; and that is because increased radiation from the sun, due to ozone hole depletion, has begun affecting the genes of marine microorganisms. In another recent article from New Scientist, we discover that "the ozone hole over Antarctica could be having a bigger impact on life in the region than anyone realised. In clear summer skies, lower ozone levels allow significantly more UVB light to reach the ocean and damage DNA."

This genetic damage has noticeably affected Antarctic populations of phytoplankton; of course, that will have a knock-on effect for creatures living much higher in the food web.

Of course, rampant genetic mutation in tandem with explosive and perhaps unprecedented hybridization of invasive species could lead to future scenarios straight out of a science fiction film. And yet it is well within the realms of realistic expectation to assume that freshly isolated non-native species, living under especially harsh solar conditions on a continent full of newly thawed places to hide, might someday provide sobering lessons about the guerrilla efficiency of ecological invasion.

Until that time, the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC) continues to call for the implementation and enforcement of "an environmental protocol for Antarctica." They are referring, of course, to the actual Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, a legal document drafted in 1991. Since its inception, the Protocol has been plagued by what ASOC calls an "implementation gap." This is a "possibly chronic gap that exists between those Parties appropriately implementing many Protocol obligations, and those lagging significantly behind. This gap is apparent both on legal and procedural aspects" – and it has been widened by a variety of factors. Those factors include open disagreement over certain interpretations found within the language of the Protocol, and increasingly intense commercial pressure coming from extractive industries, tour companies, and fishing fleets.

Having said all that, Antarctica cannot be quarantined, and easy answers will be impossible to find. Even if the whole island-continent were to be blockaded tomorrow evening, stopping all visitors for a hundred years, alien species have already taken root in its soil. Its ecosystem is already changing. Its atmosphere is already the fastest-warming place on Earth. And yet the continent is, in no way, lost; it is not some failed and embarrassing sign that scientific or aesthetic protection is out of reach.

Indeed, 2007 marks the beginning of a new "International Polar Year (IPY)." The IPY's rationale openly includes questions of environmental fitness and commercial regulation. In other words, while we may just be at the start of these dizzyingly complex Antarctic alterations, we are also in the midst of concerted efforts to control such changes.

The ecological future of Antarctica is thus yet to be determined.

[Image: Courtesy of NASA's Earth Observatory]

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Off-topic, but wanted to mention it to you:

Could radioactive decay be accelerated to eliminate the longterm problem of nuclear waste?

Posted by: sanman on 31 Jul 06

I just wanted everyone to know that when Antarctica becomes an independent nation, I volunteer to stand for election as its first President, and will be happy to debate rivals in a live public forum anytime, anyplace. I pledge to do whatever I can to make Antarctica the envy of the world.

Posted by: Ruel Wheelock on 1 Aug 06


Posted by: GEORGE DAVIS on 2 Aug 06

Strange comments for an important issue. Silver lining: Antarctica could become the greatest observational biology laboratory ever.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 3 Aug 06

So, if it's the most rapidly warming climate, how rapid is that? Does anyone know?

Posted by: Emma on 4 Aug 06

This is strange and sad, to imagine, that 25 years later the world I knew as a child would be altering so radically.... Does anyone have any feelings or knowledge about the reversal of the Earth's magnetic poles? Do you feel it is really going to happen in our lifetime? If so, how will this effect climate, or will it? Do you think that the combination of this, and the warming of the Earth will be disastrous in levels we can't cope with?
I think people should talk more about this... jokes are fine, but go home and meditate...

Posted by: Dave Walen on 9 Aug 06



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