Antarctica inspires a vision of wilderness – the last frontier untouched by humans. Douglas Mawson, who battled this wilderness to reach the South Magnetic Pole, was a little more forthright when he said ‘we had discovered an accursed country’. After 100 years, the early explorers’ sentiments have become rose-tinted, and Antarctica continues to capture hearts and imaginations. In that 100 years, however, science, exploration, and tourism has resulted in an Antarctica which is neither a frontier nor as pristine as we would like to think. Sorry to be the Antarctic-Grinch.
With around 109 occupied research stations and camps dotted about the continent, thousands of scientists and support crew call Antarctica home, at least part of the year. In addition, tens of thousands of tourists pay their way to explore the ‘unexplored’, on a cruise ship strategically positioned out of sight of the ships immediately behind and ahead. The result? A 100-year long toxic legacy of pollution affecting the unique Antarctic ecosystem.
Until 1991, waste generated in Antarctica was burned, discarded to the sea (or ice), or left in open waste dumps. Even entire research stations were left abandoned. This accumulated over the years, with best estimates suggesting that over 1 million m3 of unconfined waste remains, largely concentrated around research stations. In winter it’s generally locked in ice; but, the summer ice melt streams through waste carrying particles and leached contaminants into downstream environments. This is expected to get worse with climate change increasing the amounts of meltwater and chemical containers, like oil drums, continuing to degrade.
To address the growing issue of waste in Antarctica, nations came together in 1991 and signed the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty – one of the most proactive environmental management frameworks. A section of the protocol was dedicated to the issue of historical waste, stating:
Past and present waste disposal sites on land and abandoned work sites of Antarctic activities shall be cleaned up by the generator of such wastes and the user of such sites.
…the removal by any practical option would result in greater adverse environmental impact than leaving the structure or waste material in its existing location.
While the Protocol has existed for over 25 years, progress on remediation has been limited by prohibitive costs, a lack of environmental monitoring techniques, and a lack of universally agreed upon remediation targets.
With limited resources, there is a need to prioritise where we spend our time and money cleaning up. Some polluted areas are too inaccessible, are beyond help, or are simply not that toxic to the surrounding ecosystem. In some instances, going in with the bulldozers or dredge nets may cause more environmental damage than leaving the pollution locked away in the ice or mud. Each contaminated site needs to be subject to a comprehensive environmental risk assessment, where the pros and cons of remediation are balanced against limited funds and the challenging logistics of a clean-up.
Though challenging, we must not become complacent of this responsibility. It seems for the last 25 years most polluted sites fell into the ‘too hard basket’, an easy decision when we don’t fully understand the environmental impacts. The effect of pollution to the environment is a complex study of chemistry, biology, and toxicology. The unique environment of Antarctica means we can’t necessarily apply our existing lexicon of environmental management, as it has been developed through studies of our temperate and tropical environments.
This is where the Australian Antarctic Division has been leading the global effort. The Division has been trying to provide answers to the questions ‘what pollution is toxic’, and ‘how clean is clean enough’. For over 15 years they have been developing Antarctic-specific remediation strategies, monitoring techniques, and environmental quality guidelines. Recently, they made this knowledge available to all nations operating in Antarctica as a ‘Clean-up Manual’, a living document that provides a handbook of how to assess and clean contaminated sites. Much of the Manual has been informed by Australia’s own remediation work, including the clean-up of 2,000 m3 of pollution and contaminated soils from a former waste disposal site near Australia’s Casey Station.
Australia’s clean-up efforts have not only helped the Antarctic ecosystem, but have also helped all nations understand how to better protect the environment from our ongoing presence. With the growing number of research stations, scientists, and tourists grows our responsibility as stewards of this unique environment. The accursed land that we once fought against now needs our protection and in the clean-up of our toxic legacy we’ll find the answers to how we manage our future on this unique land.