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Poor outlook for biodiversity in Antarctica

A comparison of Antarctic biodiversity and its management with global trends finds that it is more similar to the rest of the world than previously believed. 

Blue sea ice
Image credit: John B. Weller

An international study led by Monash scientists has debunked the popular view that Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are in a much better environmental shape than the rest of the world.

The study, published today in PLoS Biology and involving an interdisciplinary group of 23 researchers including Stanford University compared the position of Antarctic biodiversity and its management with global trends using the Convention on Biological Diversity’s (CBD) Aichi targets.

“The results have been truly surprising,” said lead author and Head of the School of Biological Sciences at Monash, Professor Steven Chown.

“While in some areas, such as invasive species management, the Antarctic region is doing relatively well, in others, such as protected area management and regulation of bioprospecting, it is lagging behind,” he said.

The study found that the difference between the status of biodiversity in the Antarctic and the rest of the world was negligible.

“Overall, the biodiversity and conservation management outlook for Antarctica and the Southern Ocean is no different to that for the rest of the planet,” Professor Chown said.

The Antarctic region, which is home to a wide array of native species, drives global Earth systems processes such as climate, ocean circulation, and sea level rise. Second author Cassandra Brooks, a PhD candidate in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences hopes this research motivates the governments belonging to the Antarctic Treaty System to work toward finding the right policy mechanisms to conserve the Antarctic ecosystem.

“This study provides an important assessment towards understanding how environmental changes – or other human activities, like ongoing commercial fishing in the Southern Ocean – are impacting biodiversity and the ecosystem,” Brooks said.

The Aichi targets are part of the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020, adopted under the CBD, to assess progress in halting global biodiversity loss.

Yet they have never been applied to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean – areas which together account for about 10 percent of the planet’s surface.

“Despite our findings, there are great opportunities for positive action,” said Monash co-author Professor Melodie McGeoch.

“The agreements under the Antarctic Treaty System lend themselves to effective action, and nations have recently reinforced their desire to protect the region’s biodiversity.”

With deep knowledge in marine science and policy, Brooks contributed her expertise on the state of the Southern Ocean ecosystem and its governance. Scientists have recorded declines in phytoplankton as well as krill, the latter of which support the ecosystem in the Southern Ocean. Ocean acidification will also likely dramatically alter the system, she said.

“Antarctica is incredibly remote and in some ways, its remoteness and extreme environment offer a kind of de facto protection,” said Brooks, who plans to graduate from the Emmet Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources in 2017. “This remoteness coupled with the perceived environmental strength of the Antarctic Treaty System give a sense of protection that is not entirely accurate, as our research shows.”

This latest analysis by scientists ensures that future assessments made under the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011–2020 will be truly global.

“It will also help inform global progress towards achieving the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals,” Professor McGeoch said.

Media Contact:

Danielle T. Tucker
School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences: 650-497-9541,

Cassandra Brooks
School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences:

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