Washington: Urgent steps are required to protect the planet`s last great wilderness Antarctica, which is likely to face more critical threats than ever before, an international team of researchers, has warned.
Mahlon "Chuck" Kennicutt II, professor of oceanography at the Texas A&M University, who has specialised in the area, says it faces growing threats from global warming, loss of sea ice and landed ice, increased tourism, over-fishing in the region, pollution and invasive species creeping into the area.
One of the longer-term concerns that may present the greatest threat overall is the potential for oil, gas and mineral exploitation on the continent and in the surrounding ocean, Kennicutt was quoted as saying in the journal Science.
"Many people may not realize that Antarctica is a like a `canary in a coal mine` when it comes to global warming, and Antarctica serves as a sort of thermostat for Earth," he points out, according to a university statement.
"The polar regions are the most sensitive regions on Earth to global warming, responding rapidly, so what happens in Antarctica in response to this warming affects the entire system in many ways that we barely understand," Kennicutt explained.
"Antarctica contains over 90 percent of the fresh water in the world, locked up as solid water in its massive ice sheets.
"Research that develops fundamental knowledge and understanding of these complex systems conducted in and from Antarctica is critical to understanding many of the challenges facing Earth today."
More than twice the size of the US, Antarctica has no cities, no government and no permanent residents.
Those who go to Antarctica are short-time visitors, whether they are scientists, personnel that support scientists or tourists.
It is the coldest and driest location on Earth, and is the only continent with no time zones.
"The Antarctic Treaty has worked well for the past 50 years, but we need to rethink how best to protect the continent from a range of growing of threats," Kennicutt said.
"The treaty forbids oil or gas development, but it`s possible that could be challenged in the years to come. Until now, energy companies have shown little interest in exploring the southern reaches of our planet because of the harsh conditions, the distance to market and the lack of technologies make it a very expensive commercial proposition.
"In the 1960s, most believed that drilling on the North Slope of Alaska was not economical, and in less than 30 years, it became one of the world`s major sources of oil.
"Deep-water drilling today is practiced worldwide and sub floor completion technologies are rapidly advancing, so barriers in the past may soon be overcome increasing the threat to Antarctica in the not-so-distant future," he said.
"Another problem - melting ice from several areas of Antarctica - is a very real concern today. A report in the news last week shows that sea-level rise on the east coast of the U.S. is occurring much faster than predicted," Kennicutt added.