From Science to Skiing: Identifying what people value to protect Antarctica

New research has identified what scientists, tourists, and policymakers most value about the Antarctic Peninsula, work that is essential to ensuring that conservation policy reflects the needs of all stakeholders as the region comes under increased strain from climate change and the growth of human activities.

The research published in Ambio was led by SAEF Associate Investigator Dr Jasmine Lee from Monash University and the British Antarctic Survey, alongside SAEF scientists Professor Steven Chown (Monash University), Dr Justine Shaw (QUT), and Dr Aleks Terauds (Australian Antarctic Division), as well as Dr Yan Ropert-Coudert (La Rochelle Université). 

The Antarctic Peninsula under threat

Antarctica’s fastest-changing region is the Antarctic Peninsula. While it experiences increasing temperatures, glacial retreat, and record-low sea ice extent, human interest in the region continues to grow. Tourist numbers have increased from several thousand per year in the early 1990s to over 70,000 visitors in the 2022/23 season. 

These growing pressures have prompted concerns from Antarctic Treaty Parties and calls for improvements to the Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPA) system and a more proactive approach to managing Antarctic tourism. 

Antarctica is currently protected by the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (Environmental Protocol). This agreement designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” and aims to ensure the comprehensive protection of its environment and ecosystems. Annex V of the Protocol outlines the framework for establishing an ASPA.

In 2017, at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting, the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) and the International Association for Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) jointly proposed developing a systematic conservation plan for the Antarctic Peninsula to help address its issues. The plan would aim to identify and prioritise protected areas and management zone locations according to goals jointly identified by stakeholders. 

The first part of this process required identifying key features in the region and determining the extent to which stakeholders value these features so that the information can be incorporated into decision-making. 

Identifying conservation values

To identify these features, the research team held a series of workshops with stakeholders representing science, biodiversity, and tourism interests to understand what was important to them in the Antarctic Peninsula region. 

The team used a social-ecological systems approach that recognises the highly interconnected relationship between society and ecosystems and is an essential foundational framework for equitable and effective conservation policy. 

The stakeholders identified 115 features of conservation value, ranging from penguin colonies to skiing sites. The team grouped similar features together into seven categories: science, tourism, historic, biodiversity, geographic, habitat, and intrinsic. 



The biodiversity category contains the most features, whilst the historic category contains the fewest. The science stakeholders identified the most features of any group. This included features only of interest to them, such as long-term monitoring sites and sites of non-native species invasions. 

Meanwhile, the tourism industry identified various features viewed as lower priorities by science and biodiversity stakeholders, including snorkelling and skiing opportunities.



All three stakeholder groups value six features— the two seal and four penguin species. 

The research team found that stakeholders identified 42 features aligned with those identified in the Environmental Protocol as appropriate purposes for establishing an ASPA. These features come from all seven categories, except tourism, highlighting the need for increased recognition of the features identified by the tourism industry in conservation planning.

Balancing social and ecological values

It’s been 30 years since the Environmental Protocol was signed, and this research highlights how the features stakeholders value in the Antarctic region have expanded. Stakeholders continue to value science, environmental, and intrinsic features but increasingly value social features. 

Managing sites with overlapping values and tensions between environmental protection and human activities will require new tools and new ways of integrating competing requirements. Social-ecological approaches that recognise social considerations alongside environmental ones will help policymakers resolve these issues. 

The 115 features identified in this research can be used to inform conservation planning. However, their integration relies on data availability, which can account for a feature’s presence and/or absence across the landscape. This varies across the region and must be prioritised to enable the integration of the features people most value into future conservation management plans.

Read more

Lee, J.R., Shaw, J.D., Ropert-Coudert, Y., Terauds, A. & Chown, S.L. (2024) Conservation features of the terrestrial Antarctic Peninsula. Ambio. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13280-024-02009-4