Antarctic researchers ease the impact of human activity on pristine environment

Nowhere else in the world does a human footprint make more of an impact than in this polar continent, where scientists attempt to research without disrupting the natural environment.
By Ann Posegate
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 13, 2010

There's nothing like carrying a pee bottle to remind you of your personal impact on the environment.

Staffers with the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) mentioned pee bottles during an environmental awareness lecture for our seven-person media group when we got to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in January. We had already passed an online test and absorbed a packet of reading materials. Now, as we prepared to visit some of the most exotic places on Earth, lead environmental specialist Kevin Pettway told us that when we visited protected areas, we'd carry those pee bottles -- and that we would be responsible for cleaning them when we got back to McMurdo.

Antarctica is the world's coldest, windiest, highest and driest continent. But from our first day in this polar desert, I realized how delicate the Antarctic environment is.

Some of the most important scientific research in the world has taken place in Antarctica over the past 50 years, including the discovery that chlorofluorocarbons led to the formation of the ozone hole. An ice core drilling project now underway will provide the most detailed greenhouse gas record for the past 100,000 years.

Yet the pursuit of that scientific knowledge has damaged some of last pristine wilderness on Earth. Raw sewage was dumped into coastal waters from 1957 until 2003. Landfills of solid waste accumulated for years on icy hills nearby. Nonnative spiders, mosses and fruit flies now inhabit McMurdo Station, the hub of the United States' three permanent research stations.

A McMurdo staff member recalled her first few summer seasons on the job more than 20 years ago: "They used to dump all the scrap metal out on the ice in a huge pile. We called it the 'steel colony' [instead of 'seal colony'] and at the end of the summer when the icebreaker came through, it would fall through the ice into the Sound."

The waste and its contaminants are still sitting at the bottom of Winter Quarters Bay in McMurdo Sound; removing them would damage the ecosystem even more, according to Pettway.

Today, the international community's management of the Antarctic environment has come a long way, and many of the Antarctic Treaty nations, including the United States, continue to make strides to reduce their impact.

A state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant began operating at McMurdo in 2003, treating human waste and gray water from the more than 1,000 staff there each summer and the few hundred each winter. Other countries, such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand, operate treatment plants at their research stations. Twenty countries run 40 year-round research stations.

Human waste from most field camps is shipped off-continent, while human waste from the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is buried in the ice sheet. About 250 people live and work at the South Pole during the summer, and about 50 stay on during the winter. Given that the ice sheet below the station moves an average of 30 feet per year, today's human waste will end up in the Southern Ocean in more than 140,000 years.

Management of solid waste has also improved. Recycling is mandatory at U.S. stations, and 65 percent of solid waste -- such as plastic, glass, paper and construction materials -- is recycled. All solid waste is shipped to landfills in California and Chile.

While the impact of human activities on land and ice has decreased fairly rapidly, concern has mounted about commercial activities in the Southern Ocean, particularly overfishing and tourism. More than 45,000 tourists visited the Antarctic in the 2007-2008 season, most of them traveling by ship to the Antarctic islands and peninsula, where wildlife is most prevalent.

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