The Dry Valleys contain bodies of water that are among the saltiest on Earth (Image: Jenny Baeseman, Colorado/NSF)
A spectacular, vast expanse of ice-free land in Antarctica has been given increased environmental protection.
A 15,000 sq km area in the McMurdo Dry Valleys has been designated an Antarctic Specially Managed Area.
The status will restrict what science can be done in this sensitive zone and introduces strict tourism guidelines.
Antarctica's Dry Valleys are said to be the closest place on Earth to a Martian landscape and are so dry that they are technically regarded as deserts.
"What we have had is different standards of operation," says Dr Neil Gilbert, environmental manager at Antarctica New Zealand.
"Now we've got this agreed management plan in place, with associated codes of conduct, everyone is now working to the same standard."
The Dry Valleys are an extraordinary place where ancient plants and mummified animals are found on its barren floors.
The Valleys are also home to a lake so salty it does not ripple in the wind; a lake with a veneer of ice on top and warm water below; and a river which in summer flows inland from the coast.
Correspondent Kim Griggs stands atop Lake Vanda - several metres of ice over hot bottom-water
This unique environment has fascinated scientists ever since a three-man team led by Robert Falcon Scott first descended into one of the valleys in 1903. But it has been the increasing activity of scientists and the arrival of tourists that led to the push for an ASMA to be put in place.
"It was really a way of trying to manage both the overall increase in the number of people in the Dry Valleys, as well as manage the extremely sensitive sites that abound in the Dry Valley area and let everyone know what the rules are in (a) appreciating these sites and (b) conducting activity around these sites," says Clive Howard-Williams, a New Zealand scientist and a vice president of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
Low temperatures and low levels of precipitation make the Dry Valleys extremely sensitive to and slow to recover from any disturbances, meaning that in some places footprints made in the 1950s are still visible today.
Provision for all
The impact of human activity was once much less well understood; in times past, a swim in one of the Dry Valley lakes was a rite of passage.
Now, any one wishing to work in or to visit the Dry Valleys will have to adhere to the new guidelines which were agreed at a recent Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting in Cape Town.
"The key difference [the ASMA status] provides is that because it's been adopted by all Antarctic Treaty parties, we now have consistency in the way that we manage this site amongst all operators in the region," says Dr Gilbert.
The codes of conduct also extend to tourists. "What we have also done is set aside various zones, including for example a tourism zone. So commercial visitors and tourists going to the site also have an agreed code of practice," he adds.
The aim is to ensure that the activities of all groups in the Dry Valleys will be coordinated, avoiding the possibility of any unwitting damage to scientific experiments.
"That kind of conflict was seen as something which could escalate in the future and needed to be managed right now before it got more significant," says Dr Howard-Williams.
The ASMA will also help constrain the areas of high use to parts to the Dry Valleys that are already well explored and will set guidelines for how scientific work in the Valleys should be carried out.
So far says Dr Howard-Williams, the response from scientists has been positive. "The general feeling amongst the science community is that they want to do more, rather than less, to assist in the conservation of the area as much as possible."
"People know that this is their area that they are messing up and no one wants to mess up the area that they want to do science in."
A second Antarctic Specially Managed Area proposal by Australia, to manage the historic sites associated with Sir Douglas Mawson at Cape Denison, was also approved at the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting.