Before were allowed to do ANYTHING on Antarctica, we had a lecture on what we could and could not do while we were visiting. Even though everyone was ecologically conscientious, there were tons of things we had to do that none of us would have thought of on our own. We had to vacuum our jackets/pants/hats/bags/etc, so we wouldnt accidentally introduce an invasive plant or other organism. We had to decon our boots before and after every outing, so we wouldnt contaminate an island then spread that contamination everywhere.
Either everyone is not that careful, or our efforts are not good enough, because…
One of the very, very odd things about visiting Antarctica is that there were no terrestrial plants. There was nothing green. No grass, no plants, no trees. So, seeds from a plant from a cold climate, combined with global warming induced milder temperatures in Antarctica, combined with *zero* competition from local flora (cause their aint any), is a recipe for an invasive species disaster.
So this group of folks wanted to get a feel of how close we are to setting this powder keg off. From 2007 to 2008, scientists sampled the gear of everyone traveling to Antarctica for seeds/spores/etc. I think what they found is scientific support for the idea of people getting lazy when they do the same procedures over and over, because the tourists (who in my experience had traveled ALL OVER THE PLACE before making it to Antarctica) were at ~20% ‘seed positive’, with ~5 seeds per seed carrier.
The scientists, on the other hand, were a mess. ~50% of field scientists and ~40% of station scientists were ‘seed positive’, with 10-20 (but up to ~50!) seeds per carrier. And the tour operators are not much better, with ~50% ‘seed positive’ but only ~5 seeds per carrier.
The tourists are super neurotic about cleaning their gear, whereas the scientists and tour operators are like ‘Meh, good enough’… when it is not.
Furthermore while a dropped acorn might have little chance of gaining a foothold in Antarctica, this group of scientists categorized seeds by their theoretical ability to thrive– Seeds from plants in the Arctic or sub-Antarctic might have a shot in hell. Of the seeds they found, there were over three dozen different species from ‘cold’ climates. Cold in Antarctica? Who cares, its cold in the Arctic too– those plants wont care.
The lesson is, everyone has to be constantly vigilant– Antarctica, like the rest of the planet, is getting warmer. And, tourist spots and science stations are mostly in the milder regions of Antarctica, like the Antarctic Peninsula (where I visited). The scientists on this paper calculated the risk of an invasive species taking hold in various regions of Antarctica, and the Peninsula is one big red block of DANGER.
Scientists and visitors to the DANGER regions need to be beyond neurotic about avoiding contamination, and even being neurotic is super easy– Most of the seeds were found in backpacks and shoes. Dont take a bag on-land (I never did) if you are a tourist, and wash/vacuum the hell out of every corner of your bag if you are a scientist that needs it. Use the ship provided shoes and properly decon them before/after every land trip if you are a tourist, and again, be super careful vacuuming and deconing your own shoes if you are a visiting/station scientist.
Its not that we cant go to Antarctica anymore without risking ruining it– we just need to be even more careful.