Boot ’em up!
Top image: Chris Ware examines the boots of newly arrived tourist at the Svalbard airport. Photo: Eva Therese Jenssen/UNIS.
Passengers arriving at Svalbard airport are frequently met by an industrious Australian that asks them to show him the sole of their boots. The passengers could be carriers of foreign seeds that might threaten the delicate balance of the Svalbard flora.
22 July 2008
Text and photos. Eva Therese Jenssen /UNIS
People travelling to new places have the potential to introduce new species accidentally by transporting species from distant habitats. The rate with which we move around the world in connection with tourism and trade increases the risk of future introductions. Today, few places on Earth remain unaffected by the impacts of non-native species.
UNIS is investigating the potential for visitors arriving in Svalbard to introduce plant seeds by their footwear. Chris Ware (26) from Tasmania has travelled halfway around the world to do a risk assessment of seed introduction by visitors to Svalbard.
In Svalbard, the possibility of more species being able to survive and grow is increasing due to the warming of the regional climate. This, combined with an almost doubling of the number of tourists visiting Svalbard over the past ten years increases the risk of non-native species establishments, according to Chris.
Chris is a master student at the University of Tasmania and has been working with similar problems in the Antarctic.
– This project is very similar to what I have been working with at home, Chris says in the arrival hall of the Svalbard airport, before a horde of passengers stream through the doors.
The SAS flight from Oslo and Tromsø has just landed and Chris and his field assistant Annika Beiersdorf from Germany are busy setting out signs and prepare for the shoe cleaning.
Similar challenge in the Antarctic
The “Aliens in Antarctica” project is an IPY research project headed by the Australian Antarctic Division, where they have examined the footwear of tourists who are on a cruise in the Antarctic.
It is this project that Chris has been participating in while down under. He became involved in the Svalbard project when he found out via the Internet that UNIS associate professor Inger Greve Alsos wanted to do similar research in the Arctic.
The Antarctica project showed that seeds can be transported in mud stuck to the bottom of shoes. Here, a number of seeds were found from all over the world, some of which have already established in Antarctica.
– Surprisingly, many species are capable of surviving the conditions in Antarctica and also in the Arctic. Some non-native plants growing in Svalbard, such as the Annual Bluegrass (Poa Annua), are also found in temperate and even sub-tropical climates, Chris says.
Non-native plants have the potential to threaten native communities by replacing vegetation, altering food-webs, and impacting natural ecosystem processes. The introduction of species is considered one of the biggest threats to biodiversity worldwide and is the focus of a large amount of research.
– Introduced species also account for one of the most expensive human-induced environmental impacts: the cost of damage caused by invasive species and their eradication is estimated at 15 trillion NOK worldwide each year, Chris says.
In addition to passengers arriving by airplane, Chris and his crew is also investigating the boot soles of cruise passengers setting foot on firm land in Longyearbyen.
Visitors who participate in the research also complete a short questionnaire which gives information about where the seeds may have come from and where the visitor was intending on going whilst in Svalbard. It is not only tourists that are asked to give up their boots for inspection; also locals arriving from the mainland are offered a free shoe cleaning.
Prevention the best management
Chris started showing up at the airport in mid-June and plans to continue until end of August. Seeds found will be identified and the team will attempt to grow the seeds in Arctic-like conditions to determine whether they would survive here. They have already collected nearly 100 samples from the bottom of visitor’s shoes.
Preventing the introduction of non-native species is the best form of management.
– This project aims to first assess the scale of possible species introduction in Svalbard, and then consider the best means to reduce this, Chris says before he starts examining a new pair of boots.