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Our footprint on Antarctica competes with nature for rare ice-free land

Nature Sustainabilityvolume 2pages185190 (2019) | Download Citation


Construction and operation of research stations present the most pronounced human impacts on the Antarctic continent across a wide range of environmental values. Despite Antarctic Treaty Parties committing themselves to comprehensive protection of the environment, data on the spatial extent of impacts from their activities have been limited. To quantify this, we examined the area of building and ground disturbance across the entire continent using geographic information system mapping of satellite imagery. Here, we report the footprint of all buildings to be >390,000 m2, with an additional disturbance footprint of >5,200,000 m2 just on ice-free land. These create a visual footprint similar in size to the total ice-free area of Antarctica, and impact over half of all large coastal ice-free areas. Our data demonstrate that human impacts are disproportionately concentrated in some of the most sensitive environments, with consequential implications for conservation management. This high-resolution measurement of the extent of infrastructure across the continent can be used to inform management decisions to balance sustainable scientific use and environmental protection of the Antarctic environment.

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The data associated with this manuscript are stored and accessible at the Australian Antarctic Data Centre ( A summarized excerpt of the GIS data is also available in Supplementary Table 1.

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We thank B. Raymond for assistance with the statistical analysis. S.T.B. is supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. We also thank A. Terauds, E. McIvor, S. Chown and D. McLaren for comments on an earlier version of this manuscript.

Author information


  1. Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

    • Shaun T. Brooks
    •  & Julia Jabour
  2. Australian Antarctic Division, Kingston, Tasmania, Australia

    • John van den Hoff
    •  & Dana M. Bergstrom
  3. Global Challenges Program, University of Wollongong, Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia

    • Dana M. Bergstrom


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S.T.B. and D.M.B. initiated the research. ​S.T.B. led the development, GIS mapping and analysis, and writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed to further conceptual and content development, interpretation of the data and drafting of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shaun T. Brooks.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Tables 2–3, Supplementary Figures 1–5

  2. Supplementary Table 1

    Disturbance footprint measurements for locations considered in this study

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