In early 1995, I led a Greenpeace expedition to Antarctica during which, among other things, we stopped off at King George Island, in the South Shetland Islands just off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, to pay an official but cordial visit to some of the bases there.
King George Island, and particularly the extremity known as Fildes Peninsula, is host to an abundance of research stations: three Chilean, one Chinese, one Russian and one Uruguayan, all of them in an area of about 16 square miles. Indeed, several are effectively on top of each other; During my visit we went from China to Chile to Russia with consummate ease.
It’s a popular spot because it boasts a relatively high level of biodiversity, and also because, importantly, it is one of the largest areas in the Antarctic that is ice-free year-round, making for relatively easy logistics. That fact is significant because, in the 1980s, Antarctica saw a surge in the building of research stations; many were driven by a desire to establish a physical presence in the region, thus ensuring full consultative status to the Antarctic Treaty and guaranteeing a place at the table during negotiations for a new convention that would divvy up potential mineral rights beneath the continent’s frozen mantle.
Accordingly, not all the bases were especially rigorous about science or the Antarctic environment. At one of the stations we visited on King George Island, our hosts willingly showed us the location of their depot of fuel drums, and chuckled as we shrieked upon being immediately dive-bombed by Arctic terns.
“This is wrong,” we protested, annoyed by the drums’ very obvious placement in a tern nesting area. “You can’t do this.”
“No, it’s fine,” our hosts countered, completely oblivious to the reason for our objections. “See? We have hard hats.”
In 1991, the Antarctic Treaty adopted an Environment Protocol that not only shelved the prospect of mining for at least 50 years but also significantly tightened up the operating standards for research stations. That should theoretically have put an end to such behaviors as placing fuel drums in Arctic tern nesting sites. But, according to a recent report, problems of pollution and environmental degradation in the area continue.
The report, “The Current Environmental Situation and Proposals for the Management of the Fildes Peninsula Region”, (available online in summary and full-length form) was written by a team from the University Jena in Germany, led by Hans-Ulrich Peter, and found that, in Peter’s words, ”We have a genuine waste problem in the Antarctic.”
Much of the waste that Peter’s team uncovered was buried prior to the Environment Protocol entering into force in 1998, and is now being exposed anew by solifluction — a process by which soil saturated with water from melting frost oozes downslope. But a great deal of the pollution, and other environmental problems, are new and ongoing.
The team’s report provides a litany of such problems:
For example, nesting areas of terns, skuas and kelp gulls were negatively affected by noise from construction work during the breeding season, and resting seals were also disturbed. Furthermore, nesting sites of terns were considerably damaged, and in some cases completely destroyed, by the removal of substantial amounts of sand and gravel for use in construction … At the majority of (waste) dumps, objects classified as hazardous waste were found, such as batteries, medicines, containers with remains of chemicals, oil barrels, and oily vehicle parts … Polystyrene (or styrofoam), which according to the Environmental Protocol may not be introduced into the Antarctic environment, is common all over the Fildes Region … Despite repeated educational training by project members on the ground, skuas continued to be fed at all stations on the Fildes Peninsula, or organic waste, including poultry, was disposed of in such a way that it was easily accessible to skuas … contamination of the Fildes Peninsula by oil and diesel fuel is undiminished …”
The list goes on.
“Due to the extreme climatic conditions the sensitive vegetation only recovers very slowly,” Christina Braun, a member of Peter’s team, said in a statement. ”Vehicle tracks sometimes remain there for decades.” Added Peter: ”If there isn’t a profound change of direction, these negative environmental influences will be amplified in the next few years.”
Claire Christian, Director of the Secretariat for the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), which played the leading role in puling Antarctic Treaty nations away from a minerals convention and pushing them toward the Environment Protocol, told Discovery News she found the report “very disturbing. All of the countries with research stations on Fildes Peninsula have agreed to the terms of the Environment Protocol and their scientists and other personnel have no excuse for engaging in the kind of behavior described in the report. While many countries have reduced their environmental impact significantly since the Protocol came into force, it is clear that compliance may not be consistent at all research stations. Antarctic scientific research is very important but must be done in a way that preserves and protects Antarctica’s unique qualities.”
Peter is calling for the region to be established as an “Antarctic Specially Managed Area”, which would impose legally-binding measures governing use of the region. However, he notes, a “lack of consensus among the Antarctic Treaty states is blocking the realization of the proposal so far.”
IMAGE: Open air storage of (discarded?) equipment at Bellingshausen, a Russian Antarctic base on King George Island. The more distant buildings belong to the Chilean base Eduardo Frei. (Loranchet, Wikimedia Commons)