Australian Antarctic Magazine — Issue 3: Autumn 2002

Building knowledge to reduce human impacts

Australia’s commitment to Antarctic environmental protection was illustrated by its leading role in securing international agreement that the Antarctic environment was worthy of comprehensive protection. A basic principle of the Madrid Protocol is that Antarctic activities should be planned on the basis of '…information sufficient to allow prior assessments of, and informed judgements about, their possible impacts on the Antarctic environment…'

Antarctica’s physical environment is very different from that of Australia, precluding the use there of unmodified Australian environmental guidelines and management procedures. AAD human impacts research seeks to build up enough information about Antarctic conditions for sound environmental decision-making using appropriate procedures.

Obvious human impacts on the Antarctic environment include the unsightly waste disposal dumps created during an earlier era when environmental protection was not a priority, and the Human Impacts Program is helping to develop the right procedures for clean-up, remediation and monitoring of these sites. Other less obvious impacts could have serious consequences. For example, increasing numbers of people — both with national programs and in private groups — are wanting to experience the unique wildlife close up. Can disturbance by visitors be harmful, and how close is close enough? The human impacts program is studying the response of wildlife to visitors as the basis for guidelines on approach distances.

Elsewhere in the world people have carried alien species and disease from place to place. Such biological impacts are particularly menacing because of the ability of organisms to reproduce themselves, spreading from small beginnings to the point where they cannot be controlled. The potential consequences of such introductions to Antarctica have ensured that further study of the dangers has a high priority in the human impacts research program.

Martin Riddle
Human Impacts Research Program Leader,
Australian Antarctic Division