Antarctica was the last unspoiled continent of the world until recent decades have made it possible for reaching, and surviving, the region. Subsequent exploring has increased in the region and now more than ever as the continent holds clues to the greater workings of a globe influenced by climate change. So the once desolate terrain is now teeming, at least comparatively, with human beings as never before.
Now an average of more than 33,000 tourists yearly trek to the region, a figure which is likely to grow. These tourists reach the region most often via boat, boats which in and of themselves create havoc for the environment. In addition, approximately 7,000 scientists come to the region to explore and dissect the land and stay for extended periods of time.
A potentially overlooked impact of the increased human activity on the continent is the influx of invasive species foreign to the environment there. A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal explored this issue. The study took place between 2007 and 2008 and was recently published after observing the impact the invasive species discovered would have.
In order to accomplish the study, scientists searched and vacuumed the clothing and items individuals who arrived in Antarctica brought with them. The average person was found to have a surprising number of seeds, 9.5 in total. Seeds and plants were a common find by the scientists, causing them to note that invasive alien species are one of the top threats to species and conservation in Antarctica.
Conservationists fear that these invasive species will eventually overtake many of the native plants of the region. Species currently native to Antarctica are not necessarily competitive due to the conditions Antarctica has been under for centuries, such as being isolated, vast and with minimal growth potential. But the increasing human presence may have a drastic impact on the former balance.
The most common species found by the study were Annual Winter Grass, the Iceland Poppy and Tall Fescue Velvet grass. These species were also from similarly cold climates which enables them to grow and survive in the region. Compounding the issue of invasive species via seed or otherwise is the growing warmth in the region. This allows for the seeds to grow more readily, especially the increasingly warm and most popular tourist region, the Antarctic Peninsula.
Annual Winter Grass has been found to be especially invasive. Since the study began, it has been found in sub-Antarctica, Antarctica’s tail region and the Antarctic island of King George. This species grows especially well in regions which have been disturbed, much like other weeds, and has the potential to out-compete mosses which currently call the region home. This is especially true due to the mosses position near penguin and seal populations, areas much disturbed, and the fact that mosses grow slowly, especially compared to Annual Winter Grass.