The continent of Antarctica is at risk from human activities and other forces, and environmental management is needed to protect the planet's last great wilderness area, says an international team of researchers, including a Texas A&M University oceanographer, in a paper published in the current issue of Science magazine.
Mahlon "Chuck" Kennicutt II, professor of oceanography who has conducted research in the area for more than 25 years, says Antarctica faces growing threats from global warming, loss of sea ice and landed ice, increased tourism, over-fishing in the region, pollution and invasive species creeping into the area. One of the longer-term concerns that may present the greatest threat overall is the potential for oil, gas and mineral exploitation on the continent and in the surrounding ocean, the authors note.
Kennicutt says the Antarctic Treaty System that governs the continent has worked well since it was established in 1962 and that 50 countries currently adhere to the treaty, but it is under pressure today from global climate changes and the ever-present interest in the area's natural resources, from fish to krill to oil to gas to minerals.
"Many people may not realize that Antarctica is a like a 'canary in a coal mine' when it comes to global warming, and Antarctica serves as a sort of thermostat for Earth," he points out. "The polar regions are the most sensitive regions on Earth to global warming, responding rapidly, so what happens in Antarctica in response to this warming affects the entire Earth system in many ways that we barely understand," Kennicutt explains. "Antarctica contains over 90 percent of the fresh water in the world, locked up as solid water in its massive ice sheets. Research that develops fundamental knowledge and understanding of these complex systems conducted in and from Antarctica is critical to understanding many of the challenges facing Earth today."
In addition to conducting research in the area, Kennicutt is also president of the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR), formed in 1958 to coordinate international research in the region.
More than twice the size of the United States, Antarctica has no cities, no government and no permanent residents. All who go to Antarctica are short-time visitors, whether they are scientists, personnel that support scientists or tourists. Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest location on Earth and is the only continent with no time zones.
"The Antarctic Treaty has worked well for the past 50 years, but we need to rethink how best to protect the continent from a range of growing of threats," Kennicutt adds.
"The treaty forbids oil or gas development, but it's possible that could be challenged in the years to come. Until now, energy companies have shown little interest in exploring the southern reaches of our planet because of the harsh conditions, the distance to market and the lack of technologies make it a very expensive commercial proposition.
"In the 1960s, most believed that drilling on the North Slope of Alaska was not economical, and in less than 30 years, it became one of the world's major sources of oil. Deep-water drilling today is practiced worldwide and subfloor completion technologies are rapidly advancing, so barriers in the past may soon be overcome increasing the threat to Antarctica in the not-so-distant future."
Another problem melting ice from several areas of Antarctica is a very real concern today, Kennicutt adds.
"A report in the news last week shows that sea-level rise on the east coast of the U.S. is occurring much faster than predicted," he notes.
"As the planet warms and the massive ice sheets break apart and melt, sea levels could continue to rise dramatically, not only in the U.S. but around the world. The ice sheets of Antarctica are known as the 'sleeping giants' in the ongoing debates about climate change and sea level rise. Scientists have only rudimentary understanding of how and when these 'giants' will contribute to sea level in the future."
He adds that the first explorers to Antarctica more than 100 years ago would be surprised to see how things have changed in the region.
For instance, it has been proven there are more than 300 sub-glacial lakes in Antarctica, some of them as big as the Great Lakes, and the huge ice sheets in the area flow like rivers to the ocean. He adds that growing tourism in the area and numerous scientific expeditions suggest that the prospect of permanent human settlements is not out of the question.
"All of these concerns pose serious challenges to conservation and protection efforts in Antarctica," Kennicutt notes.
"The bottom line is that we need to make sure that existing agreements and practices that address and respond to these threats are robust enough to last for the next 50 years, and that they truly provide the necessary protection of Antarctica that we all wish for and that we owe to future generations."
Explore further: Antarctic losing ice at historic pace
"Challenges to the Future Conservation of the Antarctic," by S.L. Chown, et al., Science, 2012.