Antarctic ecosystems: Climate change and other human impacts

Fields of Research

  • 06 - Biological sciences
  • 05 - Environmental sciences
  • 03 - Chemical sciences

Socio-Economic Objectives

  • 96 - Environment


  • Antarctic
  • Terrestrial
  • Marine
  • Monitoring
  • Management
  • Remediation
  • Toxicology
  • Biodiversity
  • Contaminants

UN Sustainable Development Goals

  • 751 - Central Government administration


Impact Summary

UOW’s Antarctic Research has established the only long-term monitoring of terrestrial vegetation in East Antarctica, considered “vital” by the Commonwealth Department of the Environment & Energy to fulfil its obligations under the Antarctic Treaty to monitor and protect terrestrial ecosystems and manage Antarctic Specially Protected Areas. We have also undertaken research on Antarctic biodiversity to develop endpoints for toxicity testing to ensure that the clean-up of Antarctic soils can be achieved as efficiently as possible and investigated how plants are coping with high UV levels under the ozone hole.

Read details of the impact in full

Details of the Impact

Under the Antarctic Treaty, Australia and other nations operating in Antarctica have a responsibility to conserve and protect Antarctica’s unique environment. Through the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, adopted in 1991, the Contracting Parties “commit themselves to the comprehensive protection of the Antarctic environment and dependent and associated ecosystems”. UOW research and longstanding relationships with key stakeholders played a critical role in fulfilling these obligations and for more than 20 years has had a significant and wide-reaching impact on Australia's environmental, legal and political responsibilities and its leadership role in Antarctica.

MONITORING AND MANAGEMENT: UOW research outcomes informed Antarctic Environmental Managers on the health of Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems, highlighting which species may be at risk from climate change or disturbance from Antarctic station activities. Prof Robinson and UOW research colleagues provided expert advice to AAD Environmental Managers on proposed activities around Antarctic stations and informed Antarctic Specially Protected Area management plans, which directly refer to UOW's long-term monitoring.

While UOW research has had most application to the Australian Antarctic Territories, its reputation for developing best practice in this area has led to its methodologies being increasingly of interest to environmental managers from other nations (e.g. UK). As a result, in 2016 Prof Robinson was invited to join the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research Antarctic Near-shore and Terrestrial Observing System (ANTOS) Expert Group and to develop an East Antarctic ANTOS node.

UOW researchers Robinson and Wasley were invited by Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) Environmental Managers to develop a State of the Environment (SOE) Indicator for Antarctic terrestrial vegetation dynamics. Robinson's group established the first long-term monitoring sites near the Antarctic Casey Station in 2003, following an initial pilot [4]. Robinson and Wasley went on to develop, and are custodians of, SOE Indicator 72 with UOW the responsible organisation [5]. This is currently the only long-term monitoring system in place for terrestrial vegetation on the continent, and informs both the Management Plans for Antarctic Specially Protected Area 135, as well as the Antarctic Assessment in Australia’s SOE Reports 2011 [6] and 2016 [7].

The project was presented as a case study [Box 7.3] in the 2011 SOE report and contributed two 'pressure assessments' [7, p29] to the 2016 report. As acknowledged by Dr B. Wienecke, Senior Research Scientist, AAD: "Since 2003, Antarctic Science grants … led by Prof. S. Robinson contributed valuable data to the Australian SOE indicator 72. Through this project, Australia’s national reporting requirements are fulfilled under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act. Furthermore, this project contributes to Australia’s international obligations under the Antarctic Treaty System as it delivers robust data on environmental change on one of Australia’s Antarctic Specially Protected Areas.”

Dr Wienecke also attests to the broad engagement with the non-academic community and this pathway to valuable impacts: “Through inclusion into the last SOE Reports (2011 and 2016), the information gained through this project has been made widely available to stakeholders, policy managers and the general public. Indicator 72 is the only terrestrial biodiversity indicator for East Antarctica examining the changes to plant communities and their environment. As such this work is vital for the continued conservation of terrestrial values."

REMEDIATION AND TOXICOLOGY: Many Antarctic Research Stations are contaminated with fuel and metals as a result of past activities. The Australian government has committed to remediate its stations and is investing considerable sums in this clean-up operation. Total remediation is often impractical and extremely expensive. In recent years, UOW researchers Profs Robinson, Jolley and Davis worked with the AAD to determine the range of fuels and metals that are toxic to Antarctic biodiversity and to develop endpoints for these clean-up operations (beyond which further remediation work would not provide further benefit). The impact of fuel contaminants on select plants, algae and invertebrates were assessed and endpoints developed to inform the remediation of Antarctic soils affected by fuel spills on both Macquarie Island and Casey Station [e.g. 8-9].

This work has continued with Prof Jolley, Dr King (AAD), Ms Adams (CSIRO Land and Water), and HDR students developing endpoints for further species in order to gather sufficient evidence for the establishment of Antarctic water quality guidelines and remediation targets.

UOW researchers have also been assessing the impact of metal contaminants in soils and their effect on near-shore subantarctic invertebrates [e.g. 10]. These data form an important component of the Macquarie Island Integrated Risk Assessment (MIIRA) produced by the AAD to the Tasmanian EPA to inform and guide site remediation and management of fuel spills on this World Heritage listed island. This UOW toxicity research will be incorporated into the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) Clean-up Manual as a resource for international treaty nations operating throughout Antarctica.

The impact of UOW's soil remediation and marine contamination research on the AAD is attested to by AAD Ecotoxicology & Risk Assessment Section Leader Dr King: "This team of collaborators at UOW, their laboratories and postgraduate students, have made a significant contribution to our program’s outputs, to more informed environmental management decisions that lead to overall improved protection and management of Antarctic regions". UOW’s ecotoxicology research will thus continue to impact the future management and protection of Antarctic biodiversity.


  • Australian Antarctic Division (AAD)
  • Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Energy
  • Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) - Antarctic Treaty
  • Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR)
  • United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
  • Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
  • Environmental Protection Authority Tasmania (EPA)
  • Antarctic Nearshore and Terrestrial Observing System (ANTOS)


Impacted Countries
  • Australia
  • Antarctica

Approach to Impact

Summary of the approaches to impact

Creating pathways for research to have beneficial impacts on the broader community is a core theme of the UOW Strategic Plan. The importance of research impact is clearly articulated in the University’s mission and vision statements, and facilitated by incentives to establish meaningful and mutually productive partnerships with research end users. Antarctic research is both time-consuming and costly, as described below. UOW's continued financial and organisational support over 20 years is based on the clear intention to fully support vital research activities which will have a lasting impact on our world, through engagement with key Australian and international organisations and governing bodies.

Read the full approach to impact

Approach to Impact

UOW encourages and supports staff to engage with key decision-making bodies and directly funds research projects and centres targeting end-user engagement. UOW provided wide-ranging support to the Antarctic Research Program over a 20-year period including financial and organisational support for leader Senior Prof Sharon Robinson, colleagues and research students to research in Antarctica over >10 summer seasons (each up to 4 months). To ensure that the outcomes of this research reach the decision makers, UOW has facilitated Robinson's involvement with the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) as a Member, Antarctic Science Advisory Committee, Aust. Dept. Env. (2009-14); Stream Leader for Antarctic Climate Change Science, Aust. Dept. Env. (2011-13); and Member, Antarctic Research Expert Assessment Panel 2016.

Robinson’s and Prof Andy Davis’ research on the impacts of UV radiation on Antarctic marine and terrestrial organisms informed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Reports 4 & 5 and UN Environment Program Environmental Effects Assessment Panel (UNEP EEAP) [e.g. 1-2]. Robinson and A/Prof Wilson are members of the UNEP panel where they contribute to major quadrennial reports [e.g. 1-2]. These are presented to the meetings of the Parties to the Montreal Protocol and inform international policies (e.g. the Kigali amendment October 2016).

Direct funding through the UOW Research Strength 'Institute for Conservation Biology and Environmental Management' (2010-14) and Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health Research Clusters: the Centres for 'Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions' and 'Atmospheric Chemistry' (from 2015), has enabled engagement between our researchers and the national and international end users of their research, to flourish. For example, Institute and Centre funding supported membership of the UNEP panel by Robinson and Wilson and their attendance at annual meetings to prepare assessments. Funding through the UOW Global Challenges Program (which supports interdisciplinary partnerships) also allowed Davis to participate as a UNEP expert reviewer [1].

UOW Faculty and Institute/Centre funding for Robinson, Davis, Prof Dianne Jolley and numerous early career researchers and HDR students to present their research findings at Antarctic Science meetings both nationally (AAD) and internationally (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research - SCAR) has been vital in bringing researchers together with managers from around the world to highlight research findings. These include contributions to major reports on Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment [3].

Examples of specific support provided by UOW for the Antarctic Research Program include:

- upgrade to provide a biosecurity lab for Antarctic research (2012, ~$100k);

- organisational cash support for ARC LIEF grants, including LE120100054 (Stable isotope analysis of environmental and physiological samples); LE0775666 (UOW flora and fauna research facility) growth chambers; LE0560920 (Field spectroradiometer and fluorometers);

- housing the Antarctic reference collection with the Janet Cosh Herbarium at UOW;

- a co-funded three-year matching Research Associate salary ($100k) with the AAD in 2014-17 for Australian Antarctic Science Program grant AAS 4046;

- UOW Global Challenge funding in 2016 to bring together Antarctic researchers across UOW and external partners (AAD, ANSTO etc) to workshop challenges in the Antarctic interdisciplinary space.

UOW also supported many HDR and Honours students to undertake research in this area, with several co-supervised by non-university colleagues at AAD, CSIRO and ANSTO. Faculty research assistantships have enabled undergraduate students to engage with this research, often leading to their retention as Honours and HDR students. UOW has encouraged and funded the integration of end-user partnerships in the training of future researchers through co-supervision and placements within AAD. Long-term membership of the Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering has facilitated student grants, scholarships and placements at ANSTO.

Antarctic Research Program HDR completions include:

- Jess Holan PhD 2016 (supervised by Davis and Dr Cath King AAD).

- Melinda Waterman PhD 2015 (AINSE scholarship with Dr Quan Hua, ANSTO)

- Johanna Turnbull PhD 2015 (supervised by Robinson and Dr Jane Wasley AAD)

- Jessica Bramley-Alves PhD 2014 (supervised by Robinson & Dr Wasley AAD)

- Laurence Clarke PhD 2008 (currently at Antarctic Climate & Ecosystems CRC, UTas)

- Mary Rosengren DCA 2008

- Jane Wasley PhD 2004 (currently at AAD)

- Jeff Kinley MSc 2003

We engage the wider public with our Antarctic Research Program through general and special interest articles and presentations. UOW produced 3 publications which highlighted Antarctic Research; “40 Years of Impact”, “Women of Impact”, and the “Research & Innovation” magazine. UOW also hosts recurring public events to disseminate research including the Big Ideas Festival, TEDxUWollongong, Budding Ideas and Uni in the Brewery. The Antarctic Research Program has often featured, for example Robinson’s talks "Antarctic plants in a time of change”, TEDx (Oct 2016) and “Terrestrial vegetation of East Antarctica in a changing climate”, Australian Academy of Science, Science at the Shine Dome (2012).

Our UOW Research Online institutional repository and UOW Open Access Policy are well established and data are also freely available through the Aust. Antarctic Data Centre [e.g. 4, 8-9]. UOW's Antarctic Research Program is also made accessible to the wider public through vehicles such as The Conversation (e.g. "The ozone hole leaves a lasting impression on southern climate", Nov 2014, Robinson), media appearances (e.g. "Antarctic mosses reveal past climate, react to present changes" ABC Radio National 2012; "Ancient poo hosts Antarctic moss" BBC Nature 2012) and YouTube (e.g. award-winning video "The Science of Cool" 2009).

Associated Research

From 1996 onwards (and still ongoing), UOW research on Antarctica has been conducted across the following four main areas of focus:

  1. Assessment of the impacts of climate change and ozone depletion and ultraviolet radiation on Antarctic ecosystems.
  2. Development of long term monitoring protocols for adoption around the Antarctic continent by Australia and other treaty parties through the ANTOS network.
  3. Assessment of impact of contaminants on Antarctic plants, algae and invertebrates, including developing endpoints for remediation of Antarctic soils affected by fuel spills.
  4. Assessment of impact of contaminants (metals) on near-shore subantarctic invertebrates, with a focus on climate change stressors.

UOW researchers involved include academics Sharon Robinson, Andy Davis, Dianne Jolley, Paul Keller, Laurie Chisholm, Stephen Wilson, Melinda Waterman, Mick Ashcroft,
Zbynek Malenovsky, Johanna Turnbull, Jessica Bramley-Alves; current PhD students Diana King, Alison Haynes, Krystal Randall, Gabriella Macoustra, Darren Koppel (plus former
postdocs (3), Honours students (24), and HDR students (8 including UOW Alumni Jane Wasley, Laurence Clarke & Glenn Johnston currently at AAD)).


1. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Environmental Effects of Ozone Depletion and its interactions with Climate Change: 2014 Assessment (January 2015).

2. United Nations Environment Programme - Environmental Effects Assessment Panel, Environmental Effects of Ozone Depletion and its Interactions with Climate Change: Progress Report, 2016

3. Adams et al. The Instrumental Period. In: J. Turner et al. (Editors), Antarctic Climate Change and the Environment. Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, Cambridge, 2009, pp183-298.

4. Wasley, J., et al., Bryophyte species composition over moisture gradients in the Windmill Islands, East Antarctica: Development of a baseline for monitoring climate change impacts. Biodiversity, 2012. 13(3-4): pp. 257- 264.

5. Robinson, S.A., J. Wasley, and D. King. Indicator 72 - Windmill Islands terrestrial vegetation dynamics. System for Indicator Management and Reporting - an On-line State of Environment System for the Antarctic. 2009; Available from:

6. Wasley J & Robinson SA (2011) Changes in Vegetation Communities in Antarctica. Box 7.3. 2011 State of the Environment Report. Australian Government DSEWPaC, pp 498-499.

7. Klekociuk, A. & B. Wienecke, Australia state of the environment 2016: Antarctic environment, independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Energy, Australian Government Department of the Environment and Energy, Canberra. 2017.

8. Nydahl A, King C, Wasley J, Robinson S & Jolley, D (2015, updated 2015) Sensitivity and response of Antarctic moss and terrestrial algae to fuel contaminants Australian Antarctic Data Centre - DOI:

9. Macoustra GK, King C, Wasley J, Wise L, Robinson SA & Jolley DF (2015) Impact of hydrocarbons from a diesel fuel on the germination and early growth of subantarctic plants. Environmental Science: Processes & Impacts 17: 1238 – 1248

10. Holan, J.R., et al., Toxicity of copper to three common subantarctic marine gastropods Ecotox Env Safety, 2016. 136: p. 70-77.