Human Involvement and Impact


The first tourists visited Antarctica in 1958. Around 10,000 tourists now visit the continent each Austral summer (December-February), most by ship. At issue is how to protect the Antarctic landscape and its biota while allowing the tourists to visit and experience Antarctica for themselves. Strict visitor guidelines are in place to minimise potential damage, but there still remains a real threat of a significant environmental disaster perhaps resulting from a cruise vessel going aground.


Despite the fact that seven countries have staked territorial claims, no national government has internationally-recognised jurisdiction over any part of Antarctica.

The Antarctic Treaty (1961)

The Antarctic Treaty was conceived in the aftermath of the very successful International Geophysical Year (1957) which involved scientists from 67 countries. The Treaty governs human activities in Antarctica (south of latitude 60° S) retaining it for peaceful purposes and preserving the environment. It was originally signed in 1959 by 12 participating countries and became effective in 1961. The Antarctic Treaty was a significant step forward in the recognition of international responsibility for the environment, and yet it was conceived at the height of the Cold War. Since 1961 the Treaty has been supplemented by further agreements on conservation and environmental protection. An excellent summary of the Antarctic Treaty is provided in May (1988).

Protocol on Environmental Protection.

The Protocol on Environmental protection was signed in 1991 and came into force in 1998. It provides for environmental impact assessment (which is required for all activities), the conservation of flora and fauna (harmful interference of native biota is prohibited accept by permit), the prevention of marine pollution (discharges of oils, chemicals and garbage are prohibited), and the protection of sites of special scientific interest (permits are required for entrance into protected areas). The Treaty also specifies obligations with respect to waste disposal and management (abandoned sites/dumps must be cleaned; no PCBs, pesticides), and prohibits commercial mineral resource exploitation. Studies to date suggest that there are no large, economically viable deposits of minerals in Antarctica, but significant mineral resources may lie beneath the ice.

Human Exploitation of Antarctica

Antarctica has been exploited by humans since Cook first reported on the abundance of seals and whales in the Southern Ocean.


Sealing began in Antarctica in the early 19th century and only stopped when seal numbers declined to such a low level that the operations were no longer financially viable. The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Seals came into effect in 1978 providing for the total protection of fur, elephant and Ross seals south of 60° S and setting limits to annual catches for crabeater, leopard and Weddell seals.


In 1895 H.J. Bull organised a whaling expedition south using the Antarctica. From a whaling perspective the voyage was far from successful, but its members did become the first to set foot on the continent. In 1904, the Norwegian C. A. Larsen established a whaling station at Grytviken in South Georgia which took 195 whales in its first season. The seasonal whale kill soon reached huge proportions and the station finally closed in 1965 when the whale stocks were all but exhausted. In 1923, Larsen took a factory ship (the Sir James Clark Ross) south and anchored it on the eastern Ross Ice Shelf where 221 whales were caught, slaughtered and processed. Very soon factory ships were developed which had no need to anchor and the wholesale exploitation of whales was underway. Commercial whaling is now tightly regulated and the collection of certain species is prohibited.


Commercial fishing in Antarctica began in the 1960s, mostly for fish but also for krill. The dominant species in the early Antarctic fishery was the channichthyid Champsocephalus gunnari which represented about 41.9% of the 2.7 x 106 tonnes of fish caught in the first 19 years of licensed commercial operation. Fishing to this extent has had considerable impact on fish numbers. Recent attention has focused on the toothfish, which are now at risk of over exploitation. There are two known species of toothfish, both of which are mid to deep water species. The Antarctic toothfish (Dissostichus mawsoni) is found south of the Antarctic convergence while the Patagonian toothfish (Dissostichus eleginoides) is found in sub-Antarctic waters north of the convergence where it is fished to depths of 3500m. It reaches sexual maturity between 10 and 12 years and lives for about 50 years, attaining a length of around 2.2 m. The Patagonian toothfish, a prized delicacy in Japan, has already been over exploited by the fishing industry. In 1998 it was estimated that the total catch of this species was some 10-fold over the legal catch limit.



The Antarctic toothfish ( Dissostichus mawsoni )




Discuss problems associated with the overexploitation of natural resources.

Human Impact on Antarctica

It is important to appreciate that human activities can impact on Antarctica as the result of both local and global actions. Fishing, for example, is a local activity whereas damage to the ozone layer is due to the release of synthetic ozone-depleting substances in other parts of the world. Waste from Antarctic research activities has been a major local source of pollution in the past. The Environmental Protocol provides for the discharge into the sea of sewage and food waste, but all other waste has to be removed from Antarctica, usually by ship. Raw sewage contains potentially dangerous bacteria and viruses, detergents, solvents and metals, and nitrates and phosphates which have implications on the health of the ecosystem into which they are discharged. Significant sewage discharges can also carpet the sea floor smothering substrate-dwelling organisms as is seen in the vicinity of the McMurdo Station sewerage outlet.



Scott's hut at Cape Evans with Mount Erebus in the background.




Nuclear Power

The Treaty bans nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal in Antarctica but does not forbid the use of radioisotopes in science or in the generation of nuclear power. McMurdo Base was the sight of a portable 1.8 MW nuclear power station ("Nukey Poo") erected halfway up Observation Hill by the US Navy in 1962. The high hopes held out for Nukey Poo never eventuated and it struggled through 10 years of operation beset with shutdowns and radiation leaks. The reactor was eventually shipped back to the United Sates along with 101 large drums of radioactive earth. Later, another 11,000 cubic metres of contaminated rock were removed. It took six years before the site was decontaminated enough for unrestricted use (May, 1988). A second nuclear power plant was planned for McMurdo Station, and others for Byrd Station, and the South Pole but they never eventuated.


Petroleum Pollution

The largest marine oil spill in Antarctica occurred on 29 January 1989 when the Argentine supply ship the Bahia Paraiso ran aground 2 km out from the American base of Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. A 30 m long gash was ripped open in its hull and a 100 km2 oil slick spread out from the vessel over the next few days. The ship freed itself on 31 January allowing it to drift on the currents to the nearby De Laca island where it upturned and sank to rest on the substrate with part of its keel exposed. Clean up and containment was initially limited because of the lack of facilities at Palmer Station, but by mid-March (after the arrival of specialist personnel from USA) about 65,000 litres of the total 1,100,000 litres on board had been collected. The impact of the escape of fuel oils was greatest on the adjoining coastline where limpets, Adelie penguins and blue-eyed shags were adversely affected. The effects were relatively minor, however, and within 4-6 weeks of the spill numbers of limpets had returned to normal (probably due to recolonisation of vacated space). A total of about 300 dead birds were recovered, although this is probably an underestimate of the actual number killed because of the poor weather conditions which hampered collection. The chicks of blue-eyed shags were also adversely affected, with a number dying directly from oil toxicity or subsequently as a result of abandonment. Most other species were marginally affected if at all.


What unique features of the Antarctic environment provide problems in dealing with oil spills, whether minor (fractions of a litre) or catastrophic (millions of litres) in nature?

Impact of Research Stations

Although most of Antarctica is relatively pristine, high levels of pollutants have been recorded in localised areas such as in the vicinity of scientific bases like McMurdo Station (reviewed in Lenihan et al., 1992). McMurdo Station is the largest human settlement in Antarctica, with a summer population of approximately 1000 people. Since construction of the base about 40 years ago, poor waste discharge practices have resulted in an intense contamination gradient of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in sediments of the adjacent Winter Quarters Bay. Sediment levels of hydrocarbons as high as 4.5 g kg-1 have been detected in the upper reaches of the bay. This is higher than levels seen in the most polluted harbours of other parts of the world. A similar pattern has been reported for PCBs, with levels as high as 1.4 mg kg-1 in the upper reaches of Winter Quarters Bay, and a marked change in marine benthic communities along the contamination gradient has been noted. A large amount of anthropogenic debris, such as used machinery, 44 gallon drums and scrap metal is also to be found littering the sea floor in Winter Quarters Bay.



The American research base McMurdo Station located on Ross Island.




An extensive clean up program was begun at McMurdo Station in 1988. Major rubbish dumps were removed and returned to the USA, dumping along the shoreline was prohibited, and sewage and grey water were required to be discharged at a submerged outfall. The results of a recent study by Miller et al. (1999), however, show that a significant level of contamination still exists in Winter Quarters Bay, and that it has the potential to impact on resident organisms such as the local fish species Trematomus bernacchii. Since hydrocarbon breakdown is slow in Antarctica due to the cold temperatures, the effects of earlier contamination episodes are likely to remain for a considerable period of time. Is this to be the legacy we leave future Antarctic visitors?



The New Zealand research station Scott Base.

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