Antarctica is the most remote, coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth; this makes it one of the harshest and most unique environments on the planet. Antarctica is often thought of as a pristine land untouched by human disturbance, however, this is no longer the case.
It has been only 100 years since humans first occupied the continent (1899), and a mere 180 years since seafarers first saw the islands of the Antarctic Peninsula (1819). In the 100 years of human occupancy our impacts include harvesting some Antarctic species to the verge of extinction for economic benefit, killing and disturbing other species, contaminating soils, discharging sewage to the sea and leaving rubbish, cairns and tracks in even the most remote regions of the continent.
Anthropogenic changes to climate including the ozone hole and greenhouses gases are also having profound impacts. The coastal Antarctic regions that are free of ice are rich in biodiversity, consisting of highly specialised Antarctic flora and fauna, which have evolved over long periods of isolation, largely devoid of human influences. These areas now host the majority of research stations (3 Australian bases), increasing the susceptibility of Antarctic life to adverse environmental impacts. Tourist operators are also tapping into the huge demand to visit the last great wilderness on Earth. Paradoxically both science and tourism have the potential to damage the very qualities that draw them to Antarctica.
A total of 50 countries are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty, seven of which claim territories, and many of which have active research stations and all are obligated to protect the Antarctic environment (Antarctic Treaty – Madrid Protocol 1991)