Dirty Antarctica

Dirty Antarctica

It turns out even the most isolated continent on earth isn’t immune from human-made, and human-spread, pollutants.

A new and emerging aspect of Antarctic study is revealing alarming levels of plastic and chemical pollution on and around Antarctica. From environmental pollutants left behind from Scott and Shackleton’s expeditions at the start of the 20th century, to micro-plastics (largely microfibres) from sewage waters around Antarctic research stations, the continent doesn’t appear as pristine as one would assume.

100 year old chemical spills…

Recent findings have shown that the heroic age of exploration and the nature of early explorers’ movements and practices (for example, leaving the continent quickly to prevent boats from becoming frozen in sea-ice) saw the leaving behind of polyaromatic hydrocarbons. From asbestos to petroleum, early explorers fled the continent quickly and often left discarded tins of chemicals around the huts they occupied to spill and contaminate the surrounding areas.

Potential negative impacts on both human health and the health of terrestrial and aquatic life are real and tangible. Whilst the preservation of the sites of these pollutants (on Ross Island) is of historic importance, the findings imply that better management of the area is needed as soon as possible.

Plastic, plastic and more plastic…

Antarctica also doesn’t seem to be escaping the plastic dilemma that seems to be plaguing the world’s oceans, despite its remoteness. Multiple factors appear to play into this.

A study that took place around the Rothera research station found a significant presence of micro-plastics in the surrounding marine sediments. But, how?

Well, micro-fibres from the station’s sewage outlet appeared to be a significant factor, a finding that provides a considerable impetus for research stations to put in place better management practices around laundry. A further study showed similar possible correlation around the Mario Zuccehelli base in Terra Nova Bay. Clearly, whilst the human presence on Antarctica is immensely regulated, certain aspects of living on the continent need further work. A fragile ecosystem as it is, negative environmental potentialities from the presence of these micro-particles (combined with other issues polar environments face) pose a significant risk to wildlife.

Findings from Munari et al. (2017)

However, external pollution, from off the continent, is also thought to be a potential explanatory factor in these data sets.  Local sources are a significant contribution, but microplastics also appear to be coming from elsewhere in the Southern Ocean.

Whilst the Antarctic Circumpolar Current and the polar front are often seen as a barrier, part of the reason for Antarctica’s isolated and harsh nature, recent research has questioned this and their potential to keep warm air, life forms and pollution, out. The polar front no longer appears to be a guaranteed barrier to abiotic and biotic components, and the circumpolar current may not only be traversable but also act as a trap once polluting particles have crossed. More research is clearly needed.

What is clear is that on a whole, the continent is not immune to the polluting nature of Homo sapiens. And that means Antarctic wildlife is at risk.

It’s unsurprising that the likes of Greenpeace, in light of increasingly worrying findings, are calling for the establishment of the world’s biggest marine protected area to protect increasingly fragile biodiversity on the continent. Further international cooperation, treaties and monitoring are all vital if we are to protect the wildlife inhabiting these areas (like Adelie penguins inhabiting coves potentially around areas with high concentrations of microplastic debris) from the risks such pollution pose.

Further posts will touch more on the fragile eco-systems within Antarctica and assess how species across the continent are coping within their changing environment.


Cover image by Cassie Matias on futuretravel.today

7 thoughts on “Dirty Antarctica”

  • It’s very sad to see the biodiversity of this continent threatened by these pollutants! It’s also very worrying the melting in Antarctica, the annual amount of ice melted on the continent jumped from 76 billion tons, by 2012, to 219 billion tons, from 2012 to 2017. The world needs to look more closely at environmental issues !
    Love the post! X

  • Would the Shackleton era leftovers not be thought of more of as historical remnants or is it actually more sinister pollutants than say old huts etc. that initially spring to mind – I’m amazed how this plastic ‘disaster’ has spread and how quickly its come to light. Also the shrinkage of the ice caps. The more ordinary people like me are aware of these issues the greater the likelihood we can influence those in power who can do something about it.
    We only have one Earth. This is it. Now we understand the issues causing such damage there should be no other option than to care for the planet in the best way possible.
    Nothing will be done until the water begins to lap over the streets of Manhatten.

    • I agree, Stuart! It’s bizarre to think man-made pollutants could have reached areas of the earth as far away as Antarctica. Your last sentence says it all. Only when it’s too late will the people in power realise that they missed the time to act when the science was right in front of them.

      • It’s heartbreaking – the few in power who could do something are so focused on profit they don’t think of the shite they are leaving for their own children etc. Sad…

  • Devastating to the see issue of plastic pervades the furthest edges of the world!

    Having covered Antarctica so well, is there another area you will focus on next? I love your blog, it makes learning about something quite abstract and distant so much easier!

    • Plastic pollution really does just seem totally unavoidable at this point! I’d love to look more to the Arctic now as a means of comparing how environmental change at the poles differs. Thanks for reading Habiba!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: