Chemical contamination in the Antarctic

Appearances are misleading - even in the pure white of the polar landscape, pollutants can already be detected.Click to enlarge
Appearances are misleading

Even in the pure white of the polar landscape, pollutants can already be detected

Source: Rita Fabris / UBA

Contaminants can persist in the environment for a long time and be transported over long distances. They have even been detected in remote regions such as Antarctica. There, they can accumulate along the food chain and cause harmful effects in organisms. As a result, they pose a risk to the sensitive Antarctic ecosystems.

Table of Contents

Due to their regional remoteness from other ecosystems as well as from industrial influences, the polar regions are ideal research areas for environmental behavior and the detection of chemicals. Because of this remoteness but also because of their climatic unique features, the polar regions have often been considered in the past to be untouched by chemical contamination. However, the first detection of DDT (Dichlordiphenyltrichlorethan)-related chemicals in Antarctic penguins in 1966 was a clear indication of the global impact of human activities.


Pollution in Antarctica

Since then, studies on pollutant exposure in Antarctica have attracted increasing attention from the scientific community. This is especially true for harmful substances that persist, i.e., remain, in the environment and can be transported long distances into polar regions. These persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are listed in the Stockholm Convention, to which most Antarctic Treaty Parties are signatories. However, while in the Arctic the presence of chemical contamination has been documented by many studies, only a few studies exist so far for the Antarctic. Nevertheless, the results to date show that harmful substances can be introduced into Antarctic ecosystems through both long-distance transport and direct human activities, such as research at Antarctic stations. POPs such as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS) have already been detected in Antarctic waters, snow, and ice. Studies also report their accumulation along Antarctic food chains to fish, giant petrels, and penguins. These pollutants therefore require close monitoring in polar ecosystems.


Climate change also plays a role

An additional question is the extent to which climate change is affecting chemical contamination in Antarctica through rising temperatures. Initial studies show that melting snow and ice due to climate change can lead to the release of harmful substances. Of particular concern is that contaminants – such as POPs that have already been regulated – that have been frozen over long periods of time, may be released again (reemission), resulting in additional pollution.


Measures to protect the polar regions

Effective and proactive measures are required for the polar regions to reduce the risk of pollutant exposure to the fragile ecosystems of Antarctica. The challenge is to minimize the risk of persistent pollutants associated with other stressors, such as rising temperatures at the poles due to climate change. Because of their global distribution, environmentally relevant PFAS should be regulated globally through the Stockholm Convention and the strategic approach of international chemicals management. To assess the extent of exposures at the poles, harmful substances should be included in structured monitoring programs. The development of environmentally friendly substitutes is also a necessary step. In addition to these measures at the global level, existing national and regional regulatory frameworks should be expanded to include the parameters of 'long-range transport via ocean and atmospheric currents'. To protect the polar regions from contaminants, Canada, for example, has already integrated the inclusion of atmospheric long-range transport into the national persistence and bioaccumulation regulatory framework of chemicals.


Workshop "Act now - Legacy and Emerging Contaminants in Polar Regions"

The online workshop "Act now - Legacy and Emerging Contaminants in Polar Regions", jointly organized by the German Environment Agency and the Helmholtz-Zentrum Hereon, took place on 25 and 26 January 2022. Numerous international experts from research, Environmental Specimen Banks and environmental authorities as well as representatives of the European Commission, the Arctic Council, the Stockholm Convention and the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Parties participated. The goal of the workshop was to develop recommendations to advance research and monitoring on polar pollution, to improve collaboration and data sharing, and to provide effective and reliable data for environmental policy and chemical management.

The report of the workshop with the recommendations, summaries of the presentations and reports of the working groups can be downloaded here.