A century ago, the South Pole was one of Earth's last frontiers, but now the Antarctic is under threat from human activity.
Led by Monash University's Professor Steven Chown, a multidisciplinary team of experts from around the globe has set out the current and future conservation challenges facing the Antarctic in a Policy Forum article published today in Science.
The team analysed the effectiveness of the existing Antarctic Treaty System for protecting the region, one of the world's largest commons, from the threats of climate change and, as technology improves, increasing prospects of use of the Antarctic's natural resources.
Using a horizon scanning approach, the team determined that the major short-term threats included climate change impacts on marine systems, marine resource use, ocean acidification, invasive alien species, pollution, habitat alteration, and regulatory challenges within the Treaty system.
Professor Chown, incoming Head of Biological Sciences at Monash said the impacts of climate change were particularly worrying.
"Interactions between resource use and climate change are especially significant threats," Professor Chown said.
"Climate change is increasing the risk of the introduction of non-indigenous species. Several alien species, which have track records of being highly invasive, are already present in the Peninsula region and the risks are growing."
The team also looked at the likely situation in half a century. In the longer-term, climate change impacts on terrestrial systems, and the impacts of ocean acidification on marine organisms are growing threats.
Professor Chown said that the Treaty system remains effective, but swifter decision-making and more collaboration were vital if the Antarctic was to be conserved.
"The quick pace of change in much of the region is under-appreciated. There's warming in the Western Antarctic, changing species distributions, and a quickening in the rate of ice-loss, among other clear signs," Professor Chown said.
"The early explorers, such as Scott, Mawson and Amundsen would certainly be surprised at what they'd find in Antarctica now and by what's being discussed as possibilities."
Over the longer term, growing tourism and science activities will raise the prospect of permanent human settlement, and interests in resource use will escalate. The authors pointed out that these developments would mean substantial challenges to the conservation of the region, and in consequence to its governance through the Antarctic Treaty System.