Antarctica in Danger of Invasive Plant Species
The world’s largest desert is finding itself receiving unwelcome green visitors: seeds of potentially invasive plant species.
Antarctica is considered the last continent to be relatively unchanged by human activity, and has preserved most of its pristine environment for many years. Being the world’s coldest continent and having no native inhabitants certainly helps, but a recent new study reveals that increasingly, Antarctica is being affected by climate change and its visitors.
Environmental scientist Steven Chown, of the Stellenbosch University in South Africa, has led a study on how much the continent is being put at risk of non-native plant species invasion, mainly through the effects of climate change and the unwitting participation of its visitors and tourists. Chown and other researchers inspected hundreds of people including scientists, tourists, and other visitors for non-native seeds clinging to their clothing, gear, and equipment. What they found was an estimated total of 2,700 seeds hitching a ride together with the visitors. The researchers have inspected only about 2% of Antarctica’s visitors from late 2007 to early 2008. The study’s conclusion estimates that every visitor brings 9.5 seeds on average, translating to tens of thousands of non-native seeds making it into Antarctica every year.
Roughly half of these seeds won’t thrive on cold Antarctica, especially the ones coming from warmer climates. However, the other half that comes from cold climates has a better chance of surviving and taking root in the cold continent. In addition, warming global temperatures and climate change might make Antarctica a more hospitable place for plant life.
In a recent article in Nature, Professor John Smol of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada discusses how climate change has affected Arctic ponds, some of which has permanently existed for thousands of years. Because of warmer temperatures, these ponds are now seasonal wetlands and dries up in the summer, affecting aquatic organisms, birds, and Arctic foxes. Antarctica cannot escape being affected in some way like the Arctic as well. Apart from thinning of the ice cover, warmer temperatures might encourage the growth of some of the hardier plant species. This might change Antarctica’s ecosystem, which has remained isolated and undisturbed for a long time. In fact, non-native plants are now growing in the Antarctic Peninsula, where the surroundings are more readily warmed and a number of native plant species already grow. Some of the non-native plants might have been introduced naturally, but researchers believe a number have been transported through human visitors.
The fact that the issue has been recognized in its early stages puts us in a rare and interesting position. Non-native species are not always harmful to a particular environment. In some cases they contribute positively to the existing ecosystem, bringing benefits with little or no drawbacks. Non-native species might also prove to be neutral, neither benefiting nor harming the environment they entered. In case that future assessments, research, and studies show that Antarctica’s ecosystems will suffer from its foreign “visitors”, biosecurity measures will have to be put up and access limited, if not tightly controlled. Unlike previous cases of non-native species invasion where the alien species have dominated the environment before humans could step in, we have the power right now to either allow or prevent Antarctica’s pristine environment to be penetrated by invasive species.
Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by zen on Flickr.
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