Trash Threatens Fragile Antarctic Environment

Decaying field huts, open pits of trash and oil-slicked beaches mar King George Island, a logistical hub for Antarctic research

Trash dumped on Antarctica’s King George Island in the 2008/2009 field season mars its image as a pristine area. Photo by A. Nordt, included in a new report (PDF)

Most people think of Antarctica as a harsh but pristine ice landscape where mountain tips poke through thick ice sheets and penguins lounge on ice shelves. But Antarctica, particularly the ice-free areas that serve as research hubs, have a darker, dirtier side.

A report released Friday (PDF) called  ‘”Current Ecological Situation of the Fildes Peninsula Region and Management Suggestions,” authored by scientists at Germany’s Jena University, shows that decaying field huts, piles of trash and oil-slicked shorelines mar Antarctica’s King George Island, a logistical hub for international Antarctic research.

Tire treads from vehicles that veer off specifically designated tracks have gouged up sparse vegetation, including fragile native mosses. Toxic chemicals, oil cans and broken down car batteries lie exposed in open pits. Fuel leaks from research stations infiltrate in streams. “We have a genuine waste problem in the Antarctic,” said Hans-Ulrich Peter of the University Jena, in a statement.

An abandoned field hut on Antarctica’s King George Island. Photo via Hans-Ulrich Peter

In 1998, when the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty entered into force, countries who signed on committed themselves to conserving Antarctic biodiversity and ecology. So how did the island get so polluted?

Peter, the lead author of the report and an ecologist who has been researching the island’s Fildes peninsula for the past 30 years, points to the very thing that has made Antarctica a symbol of unspoiled purity. “The Fildes Peninsula is one of the largest ice-free areas of the Antarctic with a relatively high degree of biodiversity,” he said. The opportunity to view this biodiversity–mosses, lichens, algae, penguins, seals, migratory birds–has brought researchers, associated staff and tourists to the island in droves: the tiny peninsula currently houses Antarctica’s highest concentration of year-round scientific stations–three Chilean, one Chinese, one Russian and one Uruguayan–crowded into roughly 16 square miles. The area is home to between 100 to 300 researchers and staff depending on the season, and last year was visited by more than 900 tourists.

All this comes with the detritus of a permanent human settlement. Research, the infrastructure to support it and tourism is “putting a considerable strain on the area and are leading to a conflict of interests between the various user groups and…nature conservation and environmental protection measures,” the report’s introduction states.

Also ironic: The biodiversity many researchers came to investigate has been threatened by invasive species they brought. “Some years ago we  found some non-native plants nearby the Russian research station Bellingshausen,” explained Christina Braun, a report co-author. The report also documents the sitings of insects and other animal and plant species inadvertently brought to the peninsula by visitors.

Invasive grass on King George Island. Photo by A. Nordt, taken December 2008, included in a new report (PDF)

Bellinghausen was arguably one of the most polluted sites in Antarctica, with thousands of tons of waste lying around, accumulated since its construction in 1968–this waste has now been removed, thanks to volunteer efforts. But over time, waste buried here and elsewhere has become exposed–open pits of debris dot the peninsula, allowing trash to scatter in the wind.

But since Antarctica’s Environmental Protocol came into effect, dumping and pollution on the peninsula was supposed to grind to a halt. However, the report shows that it is ongoing and almost every research station contributes to it. Page after page of the report details just how derelict the environment has become due to recent occurrences. For example, of 220 sites identified to have large amounts of litter, about 22% were freshly dumped and 15% were cast ashore by the ocean. According to the report:

The overwhelming majority of hazardous material findings were 200-litre drums (13 findings) that had been “lost” in the countryside, as well as canisters or jerry cans of various sizes (12 findings), which still had traces of their contents. According to the labelling, which was mostly still legible, the contents ranged from aircraft fuel to disinfectant and antifreeze.

Who exactly is generating the newly dumped trash? Not so much the tourists, the report says. Tourists spend less time in sensitive areas and are monitored by guides who ensure that they pack out their trash and stay recommended distances from wildlife.  However, researchers and staff can access station vehicles and boats and can off-road into remote areas unsupervised. “Particularly problematic here is that, based on empirical evidence, a large proportion of station staff regard the Antarctic environment as being insensitive and not really worth protecting,” the report states (p.103). “Moreover, not all station members, including scientists, receive sufficient training with respect to behavioural guidelines and environmental issues.”

These off-road treks can potentially disturb nesting sites and seal pupping localities. Further, air traffic for logistical purposes is high. “The minimum distances from animal colonies recommended by the Antarctic Treaty Parties were regularly and clearly transgressed, particularly where nesting southern giant petrel and penguins in the Fildes Strait and Ardley Island area were concerned,” the report continues.

Antarctica’s environmental protection protocols are international law. The problem, however, is that rule-breakers must be prosecuted in the violators’ home countries. As many of these staff are government employees, the likelihood of severe transgressors facing consequences seems low. And although the report does document many concerted efforts to clean up garbage pits and pack new and old waste out on ships, “If there isn’t a profound change of direction, these negative environmental influences will be amplified in the next few years,” Peter warned.

Peter and the report’s other authors are calling for Fildes Peninsula to be designated as an ‘Antarctic Specially Managed Area’ (ASMA). Such a designation would implement more stringent legally binding standards concerning the use of the region, forcing  science, tourism, the protection of geological and historical sites, and the environment to come into some kind of balance. But progress on this will likely be slow, and Peter fears that a lack of consensus among the nations who signed the Antarctic Treaty will stymy conservation efforts.

Is anyone else thinking of WALL-E right now?

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