Antarctica filling up with trash

Posted by Kate Taylor

The precious Antarctic environment is turning into a rubbish dump, ecologists from Germany's Jena University are warning.

Tracks of car tires and tire chains have ploughed up the sparse vegetation, and debris from derelict experimental set-ups and field huts is slowly decomposing.

Trash – some of it containing dangerous chemicals, discarded oil cans and car batteries – is lying in the open. Meanwhile, coastal waters and beaches are being polluted with oil as a result of poor fuel handling at the stations.

"We have a genuine waste problem in the Antarctic," says Dr Hans-Ulrich Peter.

He's [particularly concerned about the Fildes Peninsula on King George Island, about 120 kilometers off the Antarctic continent. It's one of the largest ice-free areas of the Antarctic with a relatively high degree of biodiversity, and has therefore attracted a lot of scientific interest. Indeed, there are six permanently occupied stations, including an aircraft runway, concentrated in a relatively small area.

And all this has a profound effect on the local ecosystem.

"Due to the extreme climatic conditions the sensitive vegetation only recovers very slowly," says team member Christina Braun. "Vehicle tracks sometimes remain there for decades."

Braun warns too that the unique flora of the Antarctic is being threatened by plants from elsewhere. "Some years ago we  found some non-native plants nearby the Russian research station Bellingshausen," she says.

The team is calling for the designation of the Fildes Peninsula as an ‘Antarctic Specially Managed Area’ (ASMA), with legally binding standards covering its use. "If there isn’t a profound change of direction, these negative environmental influences will be amplified in the next few years," says Peter.