that dominate documentaries about the region are unlikely to conjure up images of a polluted environment. But Antarctica is one of the most susceptible regions for pollution on our planet. While we often hear about climate change and how rising temperatures are melting Antarctica’s icecaps thereby increasing sea levels and contributing to the loss of habitat of vulnerable species such as polar bears¹.
But there are other ways in which human activities have affected Antarctica. Pollution is one – and a very important one at that. Antarctica is particularly sensitive to the effects of pollution as the environment is almost immaculate meaning that any pollution is often more obvious while the cold temperatures mean that the natural processes that help remove pollution in other parts of the world happen far more slowly so it has more of a chance to build up. What is more, despite its remote location and the sparse human activities occurring there, pollution from elsewhere also find its way to Antarctica.
A lot of the damaging impacts of pollution that are seen in Antarctica are due to pollution that is produced elsewhere but is transported to Antarctica. One example is the thinning of the ozone hole that first appeared about 30 years ago. The ozone hole was being created due to the emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and other ozone depleting chemicals produced thousands of miles away².
In addition, another set of chemicals, called Persistent Organic Pollutants, have been detected in Antarctica since the 1960’s. This research not only helped to demonstrate their potential for long-range environmental transport, through the global distillation effect, but also their potential to bioaccumulate in the food chain reaching top predators such as polar bears and creating health and environmental risks from exposure³.
Everyday activities pollution
An equally serious threat to Antarctica is the impact of local human activities from personnel on bases and tourists. Due to cold climate, the effects of simple events can be there for years. For example, organic material can take decades to decay when it would be gone in months in the temperate regions of the world.
This is particularly important for sewage and food waste both of which are allowed to be disposed in Antarctica’s seas. Recent information however suggests that the levels of some chemicals such as persistent organic pollutant flame retardants is close to those of highly populated regions of Europe and the USA. Given the serious environment and health effects of these chemicals, this is very alarming.
In addition, there is other kind of waste and rubbish including metal items, fuels and plastics leftover from where scientific stations had been built. While most of the valuable materials were removed once the stations were no longer needed, everything else was left behind.
Marine litter is one of the biggest global challenges in terms of pollution, and unsurprisingly Antarctica is no exception. Marine litter, flotsam and debris can be found in the sea and have a deadly effect on wildlife. For example, birds and seals get tangled up in parts of discarded fishing nets causing serious injuries.
Increased traffic in Antarctica either due to shipping routes or tourism increases the chances of pollution. While most wouldn’t associate cruise boats with oil spills, the recent case of the eco-cruise ship M/V Explorer sheds light on the potential of tourist activities to impact Antarctica’s natural environment. The Liberian registered cruise ship was on an 18-day voyage from Argentina to Antarctica and sank in the Bransfield Strait after the crew mistakenly misidentified an iceberg⁴. The ship was carrying approximately 178m3 of diesel, 24m3 of lube oil and 1,200 L of gasoline some of which started to leak out over the following days creating an oil slick. Fortunately, the ship sank away from land and eventually the oil was dispersed by wind and wave before it could cause any significant damage².