Terrestrial and nearshore ecosystems: Environmental change and conservation

An Adélie penguin nestled among some old fuel drums at Wilkes Station.
An Adélie penguin nestled among some old fuel drums, Wilkes Station.
Photo: Martin Riddle

Scientific research under this theme is investigating the effects of environmental change on Antarctic and subantarctic terrestrial and coastal ecosystems. It will provide the scientific basis to guide enhanced environmental protection for these ecosystems.

The work of the theme is organised into three streams:

Research in this theme will:

  • identify ecosystem sensitivities and vulnerabilities to environmental stressors
  • identify signals of ecosystem change caused by human activity
  • provide a scientific foundation for a system of spatial management and area protection in Antarctica
  • provide a scientific and technical foundation for practical measures to prevent, mitigate or remediate detrimental change caused by human activity.
Some of the waste from the Thala Valley tip site.
Some of the waste from the Thala Valley tip site.
Photo: Tim Spedding

The research builds on work undertaken over the past 20 years. For example, we established the world’s first dedicated Antarctic human impacts research program in the early 1990s, which supports environmental management of human activities in Antarctica. This includes ecological risk assessment processes to prioritise contaminated site clean-up and remediation, and the development of technologies for excavation, remediation and site stabilisation under freeze–thaw conditions experienced in Antarctica.

Additionally, experimental studies of disturbance to Antarctic wildlife from visitors, vehicles and aircraft have formed the basis of guidelines for minimising disturbance. Research has also been used to develop risk assessments for introduced non-native species, such as plant seeds and microbial pathogens, and to develop response plans and protocols to reduce the risks of non-native incursions.

Vegetation along Finch Creek, Macquarie Island in 2007 illustrating the loss of the majority of taller plant species and their replacement with low growing species. This change is the result of rabbit grazing.
Vegetation along Finch Creek, Macquarie Island in 2007. Most of the taller plant species have been replaced by low-growing species, due to rabbit grazing.
Photo: Kate Kiefer

This research theme is also focussing on the implications of climate change to management of the Antarctic and identifying climate change effects on sensitive components of ecosystems. These sensitive ecosystem components may be important ‘sentinels’ – providing early indications of ecosystem responses to change in both the Antarctic and in other parts of the world.

Terrestrial and Nearshore Ecosystems: Environmental Change and Conservation will contribute to Australia’s commitment to protecting the Antarctic environment by:

  • fulfilling Australia's obligations under the Madrid Protocol and other international agreements, national legislation and government initiatives and policies;
  • supporting governance of the Australian Antarctic Territory;
  • supporting Australia’s policy positions at the Antarctic Treaty meetings – principally the Committee for Environment Protection (CEP) meetings.

Research in this theme and associated streams feeds into:

Contact: Theme Leader Dr Martin Riddle


Dr Martin Riddle Terrestrial and Nearshore Ecosystems Theme Leader

Video transcript

Dr Martin Riddle - Terrestrial and Nearshore Ecosystems Theme Leader

I am a marine biologist originally. My work has always been applied I did my PhD in Scotland to do with the effects of the North Sea Oil industry on the environment. I came to Australia as a post doc in 1985. I spent 7 years working on the Great Barrier Reef. I moved down to Sydney to work for the Sydney water board on the effects of ocean disposal of sewerage. Then came a little further south to establish the human impacts research program at the Australian Antarctic Division in 1994.

The Terrestrial and Nearshore Ecosystems program undertake research to inform environmental protection and management for the Antarctic Territory and to support Australia’s policy positions in the international Antarctic Treaty system.

So we’ve got two major themes, there is environmental risk assessment, which is in essence does it matter, are the impacts or the activities of the people in the Antarctic causing serious effects on the ecosystems and on the biodiversity of Antarctica. The other part of course is, how do we fix it?

We’ve got a major research effort looking at cleaning up Antarctic contaminated sites. So 50 years ago it was standard practice to leave all the waste from a station in a landfill site adjacent to the station. But times have changed in the 1980’s and the 1990’s the international community negotiated the environmental protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. It was agreed that we would clean up those sites. We would also change our practices and return to the country of origin all the waste currently being generated.

The other is an ongoing problem and this is oil spills. Our programs are entirely dependent on fossil fuels. So we’ve been developing the technologies for cleaning up fuel spill sites on land and what we are doing is using the native micro-organisms, the bacteria in the soils, so that they feed on the oils, they break it down and they turn it into harmless substances.

Look I love the Antarctic environment, I love being there, it’s a wonderful place both from the natural aspects of it, it’s also wonderful just to be part of the community down there. The impacts that we have are a blot on the environment there, there’s no question about that, but they are localised to our stations. Personally I feel very optimistic about it because I know we can solve these problems, they are not insurmountable. It’s a challenging area to work in but it’s a very rewarding area also.

This page was last modified on 27 September 2013.