Antarctic coastal ice-free areas – such as the Larsemann Hills – are rare, making up less than 0.5% of the continent. The relatively favourable habitat and climate, proximity to the ocean, and availability of fresh water, mean that such ‘oases’ are hotspots of Antarctic biodiversity, and in demand for the conduct and support of human activities. These features create a potential for human activities to impact on the environmental qualities that make coastal ice-free areas special in their own right and valuable research sites.
Australia, China and the Russian Federation set up facilities in the Larsemann Hills in the late 1980s. Romania entered the scene a couple of years ago through an arrangement to use Australia’s existing facilities, and India has recently installed some temporary huts at the location of a planned new station. Now these, and other countries, have agreed on ways to minimise the impacts from their individual and collective activities in this 40 km2 region of ice-free ground and unspoiled lakes.
Over several years, Australia led work with these partner countries to prepare the required management plan to make the Larsemann Hills an Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA). The ASMA designation aims to protect the Larsemann Hills environment by establishing a formal framework for close collaboration and cooperation in science, operations and environmental protection. The management plan was considered and endorsed by the 10th meeting of the Antarctic Treaty’s Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) in May 2007, in conjunction with the 30th Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.
The focus has now shifted to working closely with the other countries active in the region to implement the management plan. Australian Antarctic Division representatives held productive discussions during a meeting of the Larsemann Hills ASMA Management Group in July. Priorities for future action include the collective development of comprehensive quarantine procedures, cooperation on logistics and facilities, collaborative research and monitoring, and effective exchange of information.
EWAN McIVOR, Antarctic Territories, Environment and Policy, AAD
As well as endorsing the management plan for the Larsemann Hills, the 10th CEP meeting continued discussion of the future challenges facing Antarctica (see Australian Antarctic Magazine 11: 31), and endorsed a provisional five-year work plan. The plan places a high priority on actions to address the introduction of non-native species to Antarctica, possible impacts of nongovernmental activities, the effects in Antarctica of global pressures, such as climate change and pollution, and development of an Antarctic marine protected areas system. Australia helped champion this new strategic approach to the Committee’s work, and will remain closely involved in the efforts required to take the good ideas and goodwill from the meeting room to the ice.