New research defines 'wilderness' on the icy continent

Colony of emperor penguins on the ice
Emperor penguins at Amanda Bay, 2009 (Photo: Dan Dyer)

Australian-led research published in the prestigious journal Nature will provide an important scientific basis for understanding and protecting Antarctica’s wilderness.

The international study, led by Monash University, assembled more than 2.7 million records of human activity on the continent, spanning 200 years, to build the most comprehensive database of human activity on the continent.

The research team of eight scientists, including two from the Australian Antarctic Division, then applied six global and regional definitions of the term ‘wilderness’ across the entire continent to determine how much can be classified as wilderness areas.

They found that while up to 99.6 per cent of the continent can be considered wilderness under these definitions, this area did not include many of Antarctica’s biological hot spots.

These hotspots are almost entirely restricted to the small proportion (<0.5 %) of permanently ice-free land, which is also the site of most human activities on the continent.

The authors recommended expanding the system of specially protected areas to ensure lasting protection of the continent’s wilderness values and biodiversity.

AAD’s Senior Principal Research Scientist and contributing author, Dr Aleks Terauds, said the paper will help scientists and policy makers define and understand current levels of wilderness.

“The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty System aims to protect Antarctica’s wilderness values, but the concept of wilderness has been difficult to define in the Antarctic context,” he said.

“This research not only provides scientific guidance on those definitions, but also identifies areas that warrant further protection.”

“It will inform discussions in the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), which is responsible for implementing the Environmental Protocol, and which draws on the best available science for its work.”

AAD Director, Mr Kim Ellis, said the research aligns closely with the Australian Government’s enduring commitment to understand and protect Antarctica.

“Australia was instrumental in the adoption of the Environmental Protocol in the early 1990s, and remains at the forefront of international efforts to protect Antarctica, including through our lead role in scientific and policy work to further develop the system of Antarctic protected areas,”, Mr Ellis said.

“The recently released Antarctic Science Strategic Plan demonstrates the Australian Government’s ongoing commitment to high quality research, such as this, which is necessary to ensure the comprehensive protection and management of Antarctica as a natural reserve devoted to peace and science.”

Led by PhD student Rachel Leihy and Dr Steven Chown from Monash University, the research was supported by two Australian Antarctic Science Grants (4482 and 4296).