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UC students monitoring human impact in the Antarctica

UC students assisting in monitoring human impact in the Antarctic this summer

November 29, 2012

The summer tourist season is under way in the Antarctic and thousands of tourists are expected to visit the frozen continent over the coming months with many of them keen to view the happy feet of the small Adelie and the large Emperor penguins.

However, University of Canterbury (UC) researcher Dr Daniela Liggett said some of the most important forms of life on the Antarctic continent are ones that go unnoticed - tiny bacteria, moss, lichen, plankton, springtails, mites and all other organisms that make up the terrestrial ecosystem. Krill is central in the marine food web and is also vital to wildlife on the frozen continent, Dr Liggett said.

"If krill disappeared the entire food web would fall over. We would not have penguins down there without krill for them to feed on,'' she said.

Warming in the Antarctic and especially in the Antarctic Peninsula will have significant impacts on Antarctica's ecosystems. Reports already suggest the population of Adelie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula are declining. Previous studies indicate that there has been a significant decline in the Adelie penguin population over the past 50 years.

``Human activities in the Antarctic are increasing due to economic and resource pressures (fishing), scientific curiosity and human endeavours to travel further and experience a place that is undergoing rapid environmental change (tourism),’’ Dr Liggett said.

``Tourism numbers dramatically increased during the 1990s and early 2000s but the growth has been dampened by the global recession in recent years. Visitor numbers peaked in 2007-8 with 46,265 people visiting the Antarctic on tourist trips.

``The last season saw only 26,519 visitors, largely due to the global economic crisis and a recently issued ban on the use of heavy fuel oil in the Antarctic Treaty area. The latter makes cruise tourism to the Antarctic more expensive for tourism operators.’’

She said air pollution through tourism had a significant carbon footprint that was often forgotten when the impacts of Antarctic tourism were being discussed.

However, in order to regulate human activities, of which tourism is only one example, more effectively, we need to have a better understanding of the global but also regional and local impacts arising from these activities.

Rigorous long-term environmental monitoring would enable us to gain this understanding, but is costly and logistically difficult to undertake in places like the Antarctic, Dr Liggett said. Organisations like Antarctica New Zealand are already playing a crucial role in the monitoring of human-induced environmental impact in the Ross Sea region, but there are still many gaps in our understanding of human-environmental interactions in the Antarctic.

UC’s Gateway Antarctica's Postgraduate Certificate in Antarctic Studies sends a cohort of students on an Antarctic field trip each year. As part of this field trip, the students assist in undertaking some of the vital monitoring efforts around New Zealand's Scott Base.

This year, Dr Liggett heads to the ice with these students for a fortnight on December 14.


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