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Human Impacts on Antarctica and Threats to the Environment - Pollution

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Pollution

Ozone hole over AntarcticaThe ozone layer is a layer of oxygen in the form of O3 where oxygen atoms hang around in groups of three rather than the usual two as in the O2 version that we all breathe and need to live. The ozone layer is found in the lower stratosphere about 20 to 30 kilometers (12-19 miles) above the earth's surface. While at ground level it is a pollutant, up there it fulfills the incredibly useful function of stopping too much harmful ultra violet light getting through, soaking up about 97-99%. The ozone hole
is a thinning of this layer that allows too much harmful ultra violet light to get through the earth's atmosphere over the south pole during the Austral spring. This is caused by the pumping into the atmosphere of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by the industrialized world over a long time period. It has been recognized since the 1980's.

The ozone hole is probably the best example of pollutants that are produced in one place, having their effects in another. As Antarctica is one of the cleanest, least polluted places on earth it is an ideal location for measuring the spread of global pollutants. Minute traces of man-made chemicals used in other parts of the world can be detected in the snow that falls over the region. They become concentrated in the bodies of local wildlife such as fish and then seals and penguins.

More mundane, but equally great threats to Antarctica are the effects of casual pollution that goes along with every day life and activities. In a cold and slowly changing environment the effects of simple events can be there for years. Organic material for instance can take decades to decay where it would be gone in months even in the temperate parts of the world. The outline of footprints on a moss-bank can still be seen years later for instance.

Sewage and food waste are allowed to be disposed of at sea in Antarctica by ships and bases on land, though more and more land bases have biological treatment plants that reduce the impact of the raw sewage before it is discherged.

All other waste is shipped out of Antarctica to be dealt with when the ship is unloaded.


Oil spills

Oil spills are an increasing form of pollution in Antarctica as a result of increasing shipping activity in the region. While ships often have facilities to contain waste oil and separate oil from water which is then taken out of Antarctica for disposal, an ever greater presence is bound to lead to more accidents which do happen. In recent years there have been a number of groundings of tourist ships in shallow, poorly chartered waters and also accidents involving fishing boats in pursuit of the Patagonian toothfish.

November 2007, holing and subsequent sinking by an iceberg of the M/V Explorer in the Bransfield Strait (picture left).

The ship was carrying approximately 178m3 of diesel, 24m3 of lube oil and 1,200 L of gasoline some of which was seen to start leaking out over the following days creating an oil slick. Fortunately for the environment the ship sank in deep water away from land and the typically rough nature of the Southern Ocean meant that the oil was dispersed by wind and wave before it could cause any significant damage.

With the Southern Ocean being so rich in animal life and any clean-up operation being far from land, oil spills are potentially disastrous in Antarctica.


Flotsam
Female fur seal entangled in discarded fishing line. Fur seal with injury caused by a packing strap

Fur seals entangled in discarded rubbish
Use of pictures by permission Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete, Instituto de Ecologie y Evolucion,
Universidad Austral de Chile

An increasing problem in Antarctic waters (and in the rest of the world too) is flotsam and debris lost overboard from ships, particularly fishing ships. Bits of fishing net, fishing line, boxes, strapping bands etc. might sound harmless if unsightly, but they can have a deadly effect on wildlife.

Birds and seals get tangled up up lines and net. Fur seals can suffer the most as the youngsters in particular are very playful and what starts off as a game with a plastic band can soon turn nasty as it gets stuck over the seals head. Unable to remove the band it begins to cut into the flesh causing physical injury, infection and ultimately a long and slow death.

More on marine litter in Antarctica


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