Environmental Issues in Antarctica

Antarctica is the most pristine place on earth although it is not as unspoiled as may be imagined. For more than a hundred years people have travelled to Antarctica and most parts have now been visited. More than just footprints have been left and more than just photographs have been taken.

Some species of Antarctic animals have been taken to the verge of extinction for economic benefit. Others have been killed incidentally or disturbed, soils have been contaminated, untreated sewage has been discharged into the sea and rubbish that will not decompose or break down for hundreds of years has been left behind in even the remotest parts.

Recently attitudes have changed as we begin to realise that there are few untouched and unvisited places left on earth and that they are tremendously important to humanity.

Antarctica's clean air, water and ice of are of importance to science for understanding how the Earth's environment is changing both naturally and as a result of human activity. Tour operators are tapping a huge and ever increasing demand to visit the Earth's last great wilderness.

Both science and tourism have the potential to damage the very qualities that draw them to Antarctica.

The concern for the environmental management of Antarctica is how to make good past damage and how to reduce the current and future impacts.

The main threats facing Antarctica:

In approximate order of the assessed threat as of 2017

  • 1 - Climate change / Global warming, resulting in a warming of the sea and loss of sea ice and land-based ice, this is greatest long-term threat to the region. Already some ice shelves have collapsed and ice slopes and glaciers have retreated. Oceanic acidification (from extra dissolved carbon dioxide) is already leading to the loss of some marine snails thought to have a significant part to play in the oceanic carbon cycle. The breeding populations and ranges of some penguin species have been altered.

    2 - Fishing, both legal and illegal. The world's oceans are over-fished, the chances are that if investments into the kinds of boats and fishing gear needed for Antarctica are made, then it too will suffer this same fate. Fishing for krill could be particularly significant as these are at the bottom of many Antarctic food chains. There are already illegal fishing boats that ignore current regulations.

    3 - Invasive species. Organisms that are not native to Antarctica are being taken there on ships, attached as seeds to boots and clothing. Some of these are now able to survive there as a consequence of global warming. Rats in particular are a potential threat to Antarctica's ground nesting birds on sub-Antarctic islands which are particularly vulnerable as there are no native ground based predators for them to be experienced in defending themselves against.

    4 - Tourism, with the accompanying pollutants that accompany ships and aircraft, the possibility of oil spills and the effects of lots of people and infrastructure on wildlife and the wider environment.

    5 - Pollution, CFC's and other ozone depletors are responsible for the ozone hole that has appeared over Antarctica for over 30 years, chemicals produced thousands of miles away are found in Antarctic ice and in the body's of wildlife. Discarded equipment, chemicals and oil can degrade the landscape. Fishing nets, plastic, lines, hooks etc. carried by the sea can result in great suffering or loss of life by birds, fish and marine mammals.

    7 - Exploration and exploitation of mineral reserves, oil and gas. Not currently economically viable, but as the need becomes greater and as technology advances, this will become an increasing threat. The Antarctic Treaty bans all mining and mineral exploitation indefinitely, though this comes up for review in 2048 (in other words, it isn't really banned indefinitely at all).

    8 - Direct impacts associated with the development of infrastructure for scientific bases and programmes. The construction of buildings and related facilities such as roads, fuel storage, runways etc.

  • Global Impacts

    Antarctica is an important laboratory for research into the global impacts of the industrialized world.

    Lakes on Signy Island in the Maritime Antarctic for instance have shown possibly the fastest local response to regional climate found anywhere on Earth. Average lake temperatures having risen by 0.9°C in 15 years while temperatures in the surrounding seas have stayed constant.

    Global change may have effects that impact directly on the Antarctic environment and its fauna and flora. Global warming may contribute to break-up ice-shelves causing loss of habitat for animals dependent on the ice-shelf as well as the effect of increasing sea level on low-lying regions in the rest of the world.

    Increasing Ultra Violet (UV) radiation due to the ozone hole may cause changes to phytoplankton communities and could have effects up the food chain.

    Antarctica is a sensitive indicator of global change. The polar ice cap holds within it a record of past atmospheres that go back tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, allowing study of the earth's natural climate cycles against which the significance of recent changes can be judged.

    Past Sins

    In the earlier days of Antarctic programmes (well into the 1980's) most waste was dealt with in one of three ways:

  • 1- If it was flammable, it was burnt
  • If it wasn't flammable it was:

  • 2 - thrown into the sea

  • 3 - put to one side and ignored
  • There was also a variation of the second approach whereby larger sinkable items such as broken and useless vehicles were taken out onto the sea ice and left. When the ice broke up in the spring, the rubbish on them would break out too and they would be dumped further out at sea as the floe they were on melted or tipped up.

    Environmental Issues in Textiles

    Environmental Issues Introduction

    Environmental Issues in Jamaica