The aliens invading Antarctica are not the outer-space variety, but they definitely are green. Scientists are reporting that one day soon Antarctica could become host to a variety of foreign plant and animal fauna thanks to a mix of global warming and hidden seeds and other material brought in by scientists and visitors.
Non-indigenous plants and animals have already begun to invade some of the outlying islands and areas near research stations on the continent, and the danger is they could harm the existing ecological balance.
"Antarctica has a native ecology — a very well-established microbial ecology, and on the peninsula it has two species of indigenous plants," said lead researcher Steven Chown from Stellenbosch University in South Africa via BBC News. "And it will be changed by species coming in."
The Effects of Climate Change…and Humans
It has been a tough issue to pin down — first because most people perceive the continent as completely ice covered when in reality there is about 1 percent and the outlying islands that are not. And this area keeps growing as climate change warms the region.
Warming also makes it possible for outside plants and animals to take hold in these areas that previously would have been unable to sustain life.
The other problem? Well, it's something a little bit more surprising than global warming. It's visitors to the area — whether there to snap pictures or to study the region. Seeds and plant material have been found in everything from boot treads, the tounges of people's shoes and coats.
The research team took samples from tourists and tourism operators, and scientists and their support staff back in 2007 — 2008 and found on average each visitor carried in 9.5 seeds in. Surprisingly, the scientific teams were the worst culprits — and though no reason was given it could be theorized that it is because their gear is carried around so many different environments.
In fact, the evidence of the role scientists play in the inadvertent transfer of non-indigenous species can be seen by the fact that a grass species Poa annua has established itself close to four research stations.
What is The Damage?
The research team was able to isolate the largest number of the incoming seeds were coming from Northern Hemisphere and South America. Since they appear to be from colder regions it means there would be no problem with the seeds taking hold in the warming Antarctica.
In addition to the Poa annua grass, around the research stations and other species creeping in near tourist areas, the islands of the sub-Antarctic region seem to be the first to be hard hit. Deception Island, located 31 miles from the peninsula is now host to two grass species and two springtails — tiny critters that live in the topsoil.
Giant crabs have also invaded as the waters have warmed up.
Dr. Kevin Hughes from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) is on the case working towards a solution that would keep the Antarctic relatively pristine. He was part of the team that identified that many seeds were traveling in via boots. He also single-handedly destroyed the one specimen of the South American aster discovered on the much-visited Deception Island by pulling it up.
The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which covers most tour operators in the region, has instituted stringent measures to stem the tide of tourists bringing in unwantables. The scientific community is also working on requirements for their visits, though there are no legal obligations for anyone to clean up accidently introduced species under the Antarctic Treaty.
Unfortunately, many scientists feel it may be too late to get rid of the more widespread incursions.
"We can use guidelines for vehicles, make sure cargo hasn't got seeds and invertebrates on it, make sure clothing is clean and that we bring fresh boots," said Dr Hughes.
"[However,] I think it's safe to say that wherever people go, it's inevitable that they bring other species with them; and no matter what we do, our best efforts will only
reduce the rate at which species are introduced, we'll never prevent it altogether."
And of course, there is the fact that some seeds are carried in on wind currents.
The Unknown Future
For Prof Chown, whether the alien species come to Antarctica on the wind or via wind jackets it hardly matters. It is all traced back to climate changes that create warmer regions that will host the new flora and fauna.
Left unchecked over time it will forever change the face of the local ecosystems.
The research was chronicled in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).