The Antarctic terrestrial environment faces large challenges, including pressures from increasing human activity, accelerating climate change, and the introduction of non-native species. To understand and mitigate these pressures the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) states there is an urgent need to “provide an integrated, comprehensive and dynamic approach to the conservation of Antarctica”. New Zealand’s science goals for the terrestrial ecosystem are:
- to improve the understanding of how the terrestrial Antarctic environment may respond to climate change and other human impacts,
- to facilitate the ongoing improvement of policy development and management of human impacts in Antarctica. The new knowledge and value created through this Programme will help achieve the goals of both SCAR and New Zealand.
Terrestrial ice-free areas constitute less than 1% of Antarctica, but represent the most biologically active sites. The biota survives in some of the most extreme environments on the planet and is adapted to the unique climate, geology, soils, and geomorphology. Terrestrial areas are thus a focus for conservation efforts because of this uniqueness and also because they will be the areas most affected by changing climates. The Ross Sea Region (RSR) contains more than half the ice-free ground in Antarctica and thus experiences a large proportion of the impact from scientific and national operations and from tourism, which are focused on these areas.
Over 50 years of Antarctic scientific data have been collected that can be used to meet the goals of SCAR and New Zealand. Acknowledging the RSR focus outlined by the New Zealand Government, this Programme will use existing environmental, human movement and impact, and biological data to understand the pressures on the RSR terrestrial environment. A range of novel analyses will provide a vastly improved basis for environmental management of the RSR and strengthen New Zealand’s reputation for environmental leadership in Antarctica.
The proposed Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) will be the first such regional-scale assessment in Antarctica and will provide a significant improvement both in our understanding of the state of the RSR environment, and in how we manage human activities in Antarctica. It will support New Zealand’s call for evidence-based management and enhance New Zealand’s leadership role in the Antarctic. Existing EIA tools (as defined by the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty) focus only on the localised effects of a field event or a new facility. The proposed EIA will show the cumulative scale and effects of human activity alongside historical, current and forecasted environmental data for the RSR.
The application of this new EIA approach will rely on analyses this Programme will provide, highlighting the environmental, human, and biological pressures facing the RSR terrestrial environment. These analyses, used individually or within the new EIA for the RSR, will allow the Antarctic policy community to understand and undertake steps to mitigate these pressures.
The synthesised data, analyses, and EIA generated by this Programme will be used by Antarctica New Zealand (AntNZ) and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). These are the two key agencies that manage NZ’s activities in Antarctica and present New Zealand’s position at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting (ATCM) and associated Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP). In line with AntNZ’s goals, this Programme will address priority issues for the CEP, as defined in its 5-year work plan, reinforce New Zealand’s environmental leadership, and ensure our strategic interests are promoted and protected.
Insights from Big Data Analyses
Data collected in Antarctica usually address specific questions. Pulling these data into ‘big data’ has not been fully exploited in Antarctica. The data syntheses and analyses will provide unique insights for the RSR and Antarctica. In addition, the processes used to generate the analyses will utilise the significant scale of data and extend our knowledge of Antarctica and potentially other terrestrial domains. This will generate opportunities for other research projects, in Antarctica or New Zealand, to use for their benefit the approaches and data developed in this Programme.