Humans have managed to poison pretty much every part of the planet, from the Amazon rainforest to the deepest point in the ocean and the most remote islands in the world. Antarctica was thought to be one of the last natural havens left, but it seems even this snowy wilderness is contaminated. Traces of plastic and dangerous chemicals have now been found in the continent’s snow and ice.
Apart from visiting explorers like Shackleton and Scott and a handful of research scientists collecting valuable data, Antarctica has managed to avoid a great deal of human activity faced by the rest of the world. Antarctic waters are fished, and tourist cruises can visit, but this is strictly regulated to protect wildlife.
Since microplastics – tiny particles of broken-down plastic – are showing up in every remote corner of the globe, Greenpeace researchers headed to Antarctica to see if the problem was occurring there too. They took eight samples of surface water and a further nine seawater samples using a manta trawl – a sampling device that looks like a manta ray. Seven of the eight surface samples contained microplastics, as did two of the nine other samples.
The scientists then examined Antarctica’s snow, including that which had only just fallen. They found chemicals known as per- and polyfluorinated alkylated substances (PFASs) in seven out of nine samples. PFASs are used in a number of industrial and consumer products – from non-stick frying pans to firefighting foams – and have previously been connected to developmental and reproductive issues in wildlife.
Therefore, the report shows that even the "most remote and pristine habitats" in Antarctica are affected by pollution. This is a worrying find since it is home to a range of unique and endangered species, like macaroni penguins, sei whales, and sooty albatrosses.
“We may think of the Antarctic as a remote and pristine wilderness, but from pollution and climate change to industrial krill fishing, humanity’s footprint is clear,” said Frida Bengtsson of Greenpeace’s Protect the Antarctic campaign in a statement.
“These results show that even the most remote habitats of the Antarctic are contaminated with microplastic waste and persistent hazardous chemicals. We need action at the source, to stop these pollutants from ending up in the Antarctic in the first place, and we need an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary to give space for penguins, whales, and the entire ecosystem to recover from the pressures they’re facing.”
“We need urgent action from corporations and governments to stop producing the single-use plastic items which are flowing into our seas,” added John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.
To help tackle the problem, Greenpeace is campaigning for an Antarctic Ocean Sanctuary, which would span 1,800 square kilometers (695,000 square miles) and be the biggest protected area on the planet. It’s being proposed by the EU and a decision on whether it will be created will be made in October at the Antarctic Ocean Commission meeting.