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In this chapter:

  • People have had an impact on the natural environment of Antarctica through activities like fishing and hunting
  • Seal populations were almost wiped out by hunters, but have now recovered
  • Waste disposal has had a negative impact on the Antarctic environment
  • The melting of ice caps, caused by the greenhouse effect, is having a global impact

Introduction

Since humans first started visiting Antarctica, they have had an impact on the fragile ecosystem. Many parts of the continent have been walked across, driven over and built on. When explorers travelled over the continent, they constructed buildings, left food scraps, and dumped rubbish. The populations of some animals are much smaller than they were before people arrived and some have moved away from their natural habitats. See image 1

These days, people have a better understanding of how important it is to look after the environment. We realise the damage that people can do to natural environments like Antarctica and are taking steps to make sure that our impact is as small as possible.
 
The environmental impact on Antarctica takes place at both local and global levels.

Local impact

Locally, people have impacted on the natural environment in Antarctica through activities like hunting and fishing in the Southern Ocean. Whale and seal populations have been drastically reduced through the activities of hunters.

By 1830, many seal populations in Antarctica were almost wiped out through hunting. The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) was created in the 1960s to protect seals from any future hunting. Although not much seal hunting was taking place at that time, the CCAS wanted to prevent any possibility of over-hunting in the future.

The seals on Macquarie Island have been protected since 1933. The seals of Australia's Sub-Antarctic islands were given further protection in 1997, when Macquarie, the Heard and McDonald Islands were added to the World Heritage list. The seal populations of the Southern Ocean have recovered well since the hunting days.

Waste disposal

Up until the 1980s, waste disposal in Antarctica had a very harmful impact on the environment. Rubbish was either burnt or taken to the sea and dumped. Sometimes, large items like trucks were dumped on the sea ice during the coldest months. When the ice melted and broke up, the truck was then carried out to sea with the ice. See image 2

Sometimes, when explorers and scientists were further inland on the continent, they would dump rubbish down a crevasse (a crack in the ice) or just throw it on the ground. The strong Antarctic winds then carried this rubbish and spread it all over the continent.

The Madrid Protocol on Antarctic environment protection, which Australia signed in 1994, addressed the problem of waste disposal. It states that all expeditions in Antarctica must clean up their own sites.

Bases now carry out their own research to make sure that their activities are having as little impact on the environment, as possible. Some bases, such as the Australian Mawson Station, use alternative clean energy sources like wind power. This means that much less pollution is created and there is less damage to the ecosystem.

Global impact

The effects of global warming have a far-reaching impact across the world. The warming of the Earth's atmosphere, known as the greenhouse effect, is having a negative impact on the polar regions of the world; the Arctic and Antarctic.

Scientists believe that the warming of the Earth makes the polar ice caps in these areas more likely to break up. This will result in a loss of habitat for the animals that live on those areas of ice. It will also result in the rising of sea levels around the world, as the ice melts into the oceans. See image 3

Increased UV radiation, caused by the hole in the ozone layer, may reduce phytoplankton in the oceans and cause problems in the food chain of marine animals.

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Question 1/5

1. People have impacted the natural environment of Antarctica through activities like:

ice skating and building snow men

fishing and hunting

igloo building and fishing

skiing and sledding

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