Human influence on the terrestrial environment

For over 200 years the sub-Antarctic islands have been important commercially. Land-based sealing and whaling activities, which ceased by 1965, resulted in settlements and processing stations on several islands. Such human impact led to widespread destruction of the vegetation around these areas, while the introduction of domestic animals (sheep, goats, cattle, horses, pigs, poultry, cats, dogs) and the accidentally introduced rats and mice have caused significant changes to both the vegetation and the native wildlife.

Many of the domestic animals were fed on imported fodder containing seeds of temperate climate plants. Thus, on most islands numerous introduced weed species occur around the existing and ruined settlements. However, few of those have adapted to their new environment and encroached into the native vegetation or spread any distance from their source.

The most destructive introduced animals are the reindeer of South Georgia and Iles Kerguelen, and the rabbits of MacQuarie Island and Iles Kerguelen, both of which have devastated large areas of vegetation, causing the virtual extermination of some species and erosion of soil on hillsides.

In Antarctica, the building of several large research stations and the use of vehicles and aircraft have produced a serious local effect on the meager flora and fauna, while unknown damage may have been done by exhaust fumes, chemicals and oil waste disposal, etc. Most of the problems relating to the human invasion of these southern lands took place before any consideration was given to the need for careful control of the environment. The Antarctic and sub-Antarctic tundra, whether richly vegetated or apparently barren, is a very fragile system. (Ed. note: the USAP has put in place extensive and ongoing remediation efforts to clear Antarctica of past waste, and is engaged in aggressive recycling programs attempting to mitigate the effects of current occupation.)

Establishment and growth of plants and their associated fauna is extremely slow, and once an area of vegetation or soil is destroyed or disturbed, it will take many years for it to recover and return to its original state; even boot marks in a moss bank may persist at least 10 years. Decay is very slow and much litter remains for decades defiling the landscape.

The inter-relationship between plants, animals and their environment in these simple systems are being monitored and studied in detail. (Ed note: see the work of Robin Ross on marine LTER, Tad Day's studies of plants and UVB, and the experiments undertaken by Diana Freckman in the Dry Valleys.) These scientific investigations over many years may help us to understand the more complex systems elsewhere in the world. Because it is one of the few remaining regions in the world relatively uninfluenced by humans, except in the immediate vicinity of the research stations, the current generation has become fully aware of the need to respect and care for its fauna and flora.


 • Australian Antarctic Data Centre fact files
Introductory information about Antarctic and subantarctic animals, plants and features.
 • Human Impacts Research
How to protect the Antarctic environment for future generations.
 • Science in the Polar Regions
Links to articles and information about Antarctica.
 • Prehistory
More background information on the prehistory of Antarctica.
 • Antarctic Adventure 1997
Information on the geography and climate of Antarctica.