Mar 28 2013

Discovery: Antarctic Island Heavily Trashed

Newswire | Published 28 Mar 2013, 11:49 am | Comments Off on Discovery: Antarctic Island Heavily Trashed -

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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 is 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.

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