A spectacular expanse of ice-free land in Antarctica now has increased environmental protection following a meeting of the international group that oversees the southern continent.
The McMurdo Dry Valleys have become the first Antarctic Specially Managed Area, thanks to collaborative efforts by New Zealand and the United States.
The recent Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Cape Town gave approval for an area of about 15,000 square kilometers in the Dry Valleys to be given Managed Area status.
The hope is that this will mean that the scientific, wilderness, ecological, and aesthetic values of the Dry Valleys are protected and cumulative impacts minimized by managing and coordinating human activities in the Area.
“The McMurdo Dry Valleys are a unique venue for research on subjects as diverse as the history of the earth and the adaptation of life to extreme environments,” said Dr Karl Erb, director of the United States Antarctic Program.
The Dry Valleys run from the sea toward the polar plateau, little nicks cutting into the Transantarctic Mountains. The brown oases that are the Valleys are the closest place on Earth to the landscape of Mars and are so dry that they are technically deserts, with ancient plants and mummified animals on the barren valley floors. It’s also home to one of the saltiest pools of water in the world and, in the summer, a river which flows inland from the coast.
For New Zealanders and the US scientists working in the unique area, the rules are already strict; but now anyone else wishing to work in the Dry Valleys will also have to adhere to the new rules.
“The key difference [the ASMA status] provides is that because it’s been adopted by all Antarctic Treaty parties, we now have consistency in the way that we manage this site amongst all operators in the region,” says Dr Neil Gilbert, environmental manager for Antarctica New Zealand, the agency which oversees all of New Zealand’s Antarctic activities.
The codes of conduct will also extend to tourists. “What we have also done is set aside various zones, including for example a tourism zone. So commercial visitors and tourists going to the site also have an agreed code of practice,” says Dr Gilbert.
The Dry Valleys are particularly sensitive to human disturbance with extremely slow recovery rates, meaning that footprints made in the 1950s in areas of low wind disturbance are still clearly visible today.
The ASMA has been established in direct response to the increase in human activities, says Clive Howard-Williams, New Zealand scientist and a vice president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
“It was really a way of trying to manage both the overall increase in the number of people in the Dry Valleys as well as manage the extremely sensitive sites that abound in the Dry Valleys area and let everyone know what the rules are in a) appreciating these sites and b) conducting activity around these sites,” says Dr Howard-Williams.
Despite the new ASMA codes of conduct being quite prescriptive about what scientists can and, by inference, cannot do, Dr Howard-Williams says the response from scientists has been positive. “People know that this is their area that they are messing up and no one wants to mess up the area that they want to do science in.”
Antarctic Specially Managed Areas are one of the environmental management tools available under the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1991. The provisions for Antarctic Specially Managed Areas came into force internationally in May 2002.
A second Antarctic Specially Managed Area proposal by Australia, to manage the historic sites associated with Sir Douglas Mawson at Cape Denison, has also been approved at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.