The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty designates Antarctica as a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science.
IAATO and its members adhere to this principle and actively work to advocate and support science and research on the continent.
Since its inception back in 1991, IAATO has taken a proactive role in managing pressure on the Antarctic environment, working within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty System to help visitors have an enriching experience while having no more than a minor or transitory impact. Part of this work involves supporting scientific research and forming successful collaborations that will help IAATO and policy makers make better decisions about Antarctica’s ongoing protection and long-term future.
Each year, IAATO submits Information Papers about its activities, including statistics, to the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, advocating for the responsible management of all human activity in Antarctica. IAATO also regularly seeks expert, independent advice to analyse and publish data to facilitate discussions internally and at policy level.
Conservation Planning for the Antarctic Peninsula
Overview of the Project
As human activity grows across Antarctica and as environmental change becomes more pronounced, it becomes increasingly pressing to determine how to best conserve its unique biodiversity and environments. The Antarctic Peninsula, home to much of the continent’s biodiversity, has a comparatively mild climate and close proximity to South America, making it the most visited region of Antarctica for both science and tourism. Improving the management of human activity in the region is a key priority for IAATO and many Antarctic Treaty Parties, where an integrated approach is required to facilitate management of multiple values and stakeholders, particularly where human activity is highly concentrated. The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and IAATO are developing an integrative, evidence-based approach to site management, incorporating all activities (science and tourism) and all known biodiversity features (such as breeding seabird colonies, vegetation, and invertebrates).
Systematic Conservation Planning (SCP) is a routine approach employed by conservation biologists to aid decision makers in managing whole landscapes involving multiple stakeholders and multiple objectives. SCAR, IAATO and project partners are utilising the SCP approach to develop an SCP for the Antarctic Peninsula that will deliver quantifiable, evidence-based solutions for the simultaneous management of tourism, science and biodiversity in the Antarctic Peninsula region.
A Coordination Group, consisting of SCAR and IAATO members, with observers from Monash University, has been formed to help oversee the project. The coordination group meets regularly and will continue to for the duration of the project. The group is chaired by Amanda Lynnes (IAATO) and Dr Chandrika Nath (SCAR).
SCAR and IAATO have established a liaison group for the project. The liaison group consists of interested stakeholders, including scientists, policymakers and managers, that help to provide the project with input, advice and where appropriate, further data.
A post-doctoral researcher, Dr Jasmine Lee, was appointed to the project and commenced work in April 2019 at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
Work has been undertaken to define the objectives of the project, to identify and collect relevant data, identify appropriate conservation decision support software, and establish where stakeholder engagement is required.
Stakeholder engagement forms a major component of the project method and has now commenced with the liaison group, invited experts and IAATO members.
A dedicated session was held in February 2020 to engage tourism operators in the process at an IAATO workshop on managing for growth in the Antarctic Peninsula. Operators successfully provided input and identified their values in the Antarctic Peninsula.
An equivalent workshop for scientists and policymakers has been held online. Over 50 science and policy experts are involved in the process.
Each season, between November and April, IAATO member companies provide logistic and scientific support to scores of researchers and station personnel from national Antarctic programs and Antarctic organizations. This includes providing platforms for collecting data in the field and/or transporting personnel, equipment and supplies to stations, research camps or other vessels. With regular departures to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia throughout the season, IAATO vessels provide a cost-effective transport link and often engage in charter work for national Antarctic programs or other projects.
Long term monitoring projects are particularly important, especially in areas like the Antarctic Peninsula which is undergoing significant environmental change and where there is a lot of overlapping human activity in the form of research, fishing and tourism. IAATO operators annually carry researchers in support of projects such as Penguin Watch and the Mapping Application for Penguin Populations and Projected Dynamics (MAPPPD ). Both projects aim to alert scientists to any environmental change and help them understand what is causing it. In turn, policy makers, industry and other stakeholders can use this information to make decisions about managing human activity for the benefit of Antarctica.
Specific requests for logistic or other support should be made to individual companies or the IAATO Secretariat.
Many IAATO operators encourage Antarctic travellers to collect data through citizen science initiatives, usually as part of a collaborative project with professional scientists.
These projects make science more accessible, fun and engaging, but also generate cutting edge science in the otherwise under-studied and tricky-to-get to polar regions. Citizen science allows everyone to be more than just visitors by experiencing Antarctica in a more hands on way, developing a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, this beautiful place. Through this heightened level of participation, our guests are more likely to become true Antarctic Ambassadors.
And you don’t need to be in Antarctica to get involved. You can help Penguin Watch researchers by counting penguins now from wherever you are.
Identifying, understanding and acting for whales
IAATO expedition vessels form valuable platforms for research, harnessing the power of thousands of whale-watching enthusiasts. Over the years, data collected by scientists, guides and visitors have helped identify and track marine mammals in Antarctica and across the globe, expanding our knowledge of their behaviour, populations and distribution. For example, we now know there are at least five different ecotypes of killer whale in the Southern Ocean. Although their ranges overlap, they do not mix socially and specialise in catching different prey. The Type D killer whale has remained elusive for decades, but in 2019 a pod was finally encountered by an IAATO vessel, allowing scientists to take photographs, underwater recordings and genetic samples.
Happywhale encourages citizen scientists to upload their images of the mammals they encounter on their travels to its website. Identification experts can then examine these pictures to see if they match any whales already stored in the database, or if they are new to science. The contributors are notified of the results and can follow ‘their’ whale on its travels.
Such research informs conservation management decisions. In 2019, IAATO took the unprecedented step of establishing vessel slow areas covering more than 20,000km2 in the Antarctic Peninsula region.
Taking Cloud Observations & Atmospheric Measurements for NASA’s GLOBE Observer
Citizen scientists in Antarctica and across the world are recording cloud cover to help scientists understand how surface and air temperatures are affected by it, and how clouds will respond to a changing climate. Clouds affect how much sunlight is being absorbed by the earth and how much heat escapes back into space. When a GLOBE Clouds observation is taken within 15 minutes of a satellite overpass, the data are matched to NASA satellite data for further analysis.
Surveying seabirds for the Antarctic Site Inventory
Seabirds can tell us an amazing amount about the environment they live in, including about the populations of the prey they eat, such as fish and krill which is usually difficult to study. Because they come back to breeding colonies to raise their young, it is also possible to learn about their populations and how they are changing over time. Citizen scientists travelling to Antarctica are able to participate in at sea or on shore surveys, contributing to the Antarctic Site Inventory, a long-term monitoring project coordinated by Oceanites, Stony brook University, New York, and other partners.
Sampling phytoplankton for FjordPhyto
Phytoplankton is at the base of the food chain supporting all marine life. Scientists from the project FjordPhyto rely on samples of phytoplankton collected by Antarctic travellers. The samples, collected during the austral summer, help them understand how melted glacial water affects phytoplankton populations in fjords along the Antarctic Peninsula.
Measuring abundance of phytoplankton with a Secchi Disc
The distribution, composition and abundance of phytoplankton is altering as oceans are affected by climate change. By lowering a Secchi Disk vertically into the sea from a stationary vessel, citizen scientists are able to record the ‘Secchi Depth’. This is the depth when the Secchi Disk disappears from sight. The Secchi Depth measures the clarity of seawater which, away from estuaries and coasts, indicates the amount of phytoplankton at the sea surface.