We’ve put up stories in the past about the double-edged sword that is Antarctic tourism. On the one hand, it brings an otherwise alien landscape a little closer to home, thus helping to foster greater stewardship over the Antarctic. On the other, increased human traffic can be disruptive and damaging for the fragile Antarctic ecosystem. According to a recent study, one more example of the damaging effects of Antarctic tourism was found in the seeds that cling to the continent's visitors.
A Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) study examined the level at which plant seeds may be clinging to Antarctic visitors. The PNAS study examined the belongings of visitors, finding plant seeds predominantly on bags and boots. Individuals tend to unwittingly carry nine to ten seeds, into Antarctica. With an annual total of 7,000 scientists and 33,000 tourists coming to the continent, that makes for a lot of seeds. As the region gets warmer and warmer, due to climate change, the climate will grow more hospitable to these invasive plants. Scientists fear that when this happens there will be a severe disruption to some of Antarctica’s natural processes.
It would be most difficult, if not impossible, for most plants to take root in an area as harsh as Antarctica. The PNAS study found that because most of these tourists and scientists had recently (as of the time of the study) visited other colder areas, many of the seeds they brought were from those areas. Those plants are much heartier than most other plants and are more apt to adapt and thrive in the changing Antarctic climate.
An invasive grass species called Poa annua, two wind-dispersed vascular plant species of South American origin and two alien springtail species are believed to be among the new plants already taking up residence in Antarctica.
Thankfully most of Antarctica is at low risk of invasion. This is due either to low visitation or a thick protective layer of ice. The Western Antarctic Peninsula, the area most widely visited and studied, is the area under the greatest threat, as it has relatively little ice coverage.
This may be a sign that there needs to be stricter biological security for scientists and tourists coming onto the island. While some, like Andrew Phillips, have submitted papers which mention the impending necessity of stricter biosecurity in the Antarctic, there is little regulation. Hopefully the PNAS finding will serve a push to bring about official biological security regulation.