Antarctic scientists warned Wednesday that a surge in tourists visiting the frozen continent and new roads and runways built to service research facilities were threatening its fragile environment. Tourist numbers have exploded from less than 5,000 in 1990 to about 40,000 a year, according to industry figures, and most people go to the fragmented ice-free areas that make up less than one percent of Antarctica.

A growing number of research facilities are also being built, along with associated infrastructure such as fuel depots and runways, in the tiny ice-free zones. It is these areas which contain most of the continent’s wildlife and plants, yet they are among the planet’s least-protected, said a study led by the Australian government-funded National Environmental Research Programme (NERP) and the Australian Antarctic Division.

‘Many people think that Antarctica is well protected from threats to its biodiversity because it’s isolated and no one lives there,’ said Justine Shaw from the NERP of the study published in the journal PLoS Biology. ‘However, we show that there are threats to Antarctic biodiversity. ‘Most of Antarctica is covered in ice, with less than one percent permanently ice-free,’ she added. ‘Only 1.5 percent of this ice-free area belongs to Antarctic Specially Protected Areas under the Antarctic Treaty System, yet ice-free land is where the majority of biodiversity occurs.’