Tourists are leaving more than footsteps in Antarctica

It’s considered one of the coldest, driest, and most pristine environments on earth. But with climate change and an increase in visitors, Antarctica is not likely to stay that way forever.

After all, with over 30,000 tourists (plus 7000 scientists and support personnel) visiting the Antarctic each year, it’s pretty much a guarantee that things damaging to the continent’s unique eco-system are getting left behind.

No matter how hard everyone tries to follow the philosophy of ‘take only photos, leave only footsteps’, occasionally someone slips up and drops something. It could be something as small as a chewing gum wrapper that got knocked out of the camera bag unnoticed.

But you don’t really expect that the things being left behind are seeds and plants that, unbeknownst to the tourist, have been hitchhiking on their clothes, their bags, and their shoes.

A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Journal states that “invasive alien plants are amongst the most significant conservation threat to Antarctica, especially as climate change warms the ice continent.”

In the study, researchers vacuumed the pockets, trousers, sleeve cuffs, shoes and bags of 1000 travelers, discovering that on average each person checked was unintentionally carrying 9.5 seeds on their belongings.

And worse still, most of these seeds and plants are cold-adapted species that would have no trouble colonizing and growing in seal and penguin areas along the Antarctic coast and surrounding islands.

Clearly, despite the fact that expedition ships to the Antarctica are advised to follow specific decontamination procedures as laid out by the IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators), hitchhiking seeds and plants are still getting through.

So if you’re planning on visiting Antarctica in the future, watch out for hitchhikers. You never know where they might be hiding.

(image via flickr: Polar Cruises)


About The Author