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Conservation and the Environment

Removing barrels of waste from the Antarctic

Do you think there will ever be a permanent settlement on Antarctica and what are the environmental + political issues involved? How many tourists visit Antarctica during the year and do you feel that they harm the environment and hinder your research?

In recent years the longest any one person has lived continuously in the Antarctic is three and a half years, but scientists and support staff who enjoy working there do return time and time again. That said, Antarctic stations are "permanent" settlements. They are marked on maps!. Both Argentina and Chile have encouraged families to live at their stations and children have been born in the Antarctic. If the world warms as much as expected in the next hundred years and tourism continues to grow there could be a enough hotel staff to form a viable village at which people might want to live permanently (except for their holidays).

I am sure that the environmental restrictions on safeguarding the Antarctic will be rigorously applied. All wastes will have to be removed. All ships will have to be suitable for working in Antarctic waters. Any group polluting the Antarctic will lose their licence to operate there and will be required to clean up their pollution. Currently the countries from which the expeditions are organised issue licences. Politically I feel there will be no problems unless some country does not insist on the same high standards of safeguarding the environment than the others.

Currently around 10,000 tourists visit the Antarctic each year. Mainly on cruise ships, some just fly over the continent in aircraft, and others (the brave ones) come in small yachts across the stormy Southern Ocean in the middle of the summer. Cruise ships are self contained and may visit an Antarctic station on a pre-arranged visit, and visit historic sites, penguin rookeries and known beauty spots. The tourists are well controlled and so far have provided little damage to the Antarctic environment. Only when there are medical emergencies and the tourist authorities are unable to deal with them, does tourism hinder Antarctic research. This is because planes and ships may have to be diverted from their normal roles in supporting science programmes to providing Search and Rescue operations and medical evacuations.

How do you avoid polluting the environment when you go to the toilet?

When considering environmental impact you have to realise just how big the Antarctic is and just how few people live here. Just at the moment there are probably more people in three Indian railway carriages than are spending a winter in the Antarctic. As I'm sure you must be aware toilet facilities when camping are pretty primitive. Last summer I was working with scientists on a field project on Alexander Island. This island is approximately the size of Wales and at the height of summer there were probably 10 people living and working on it. Minimal impact I'm sure you agree. My job is Field Assistant so we are responsible for all field safety, camp craft and mountain travel, everything outside of the science really. We were working in a Site of Special Scientific Interest SSSI. Because of the delicate nature of the mosses and lichens there and the need to preserve the environment, we erected an extra tent for use as a toilet and human waste was deposited into a plastic bag. Not much fun as you can imagine since we share the bag until it is full. The bags were then sealed and flown back to our hut at Fossil Bluff. The waste was burnt to ash and then sealed in a drum for eventual landfill in the Falkland Islands. Our two main summer camps, Fossil Bluff and Sky Blu now have a small wooden collapsable toilet huts which will turn waste to ash for removal. The view from the small window in these huts is amazing, snow and mountains as far as the eye can see.

If you found an injured penguin, would you attempt to help it, or would you have to leave it to survive or die as it would naturally?

Nature is at its most raw here, one exciting but perhaps disturbing sight last summer was a leopard seal killing a penguin just off shore to our south. This is the way of the world, nature has its predators. Normally the animals we see around Rothera Point on our local walks are just resting before returning to the sea to feed. It's whilst out at sea that they are most at risk. We rarely see a dead animal around Rothera Point, they just don't make it back. Quite often though you can see injuries to the seals caused by fights or attacks by other animals. Some of the animals are regular visitors and receive names. The penguins look particularly funny when they moult as they wander around with punk hair cuts. One late developing penguin chick was nick-named 'Psycho Chick' because of his wild staring eyes. As he was a late growing chick we often wonder if he made it out there in the big wide world; we have no way of telling of course. We don't help them but we do worry about them.

I'm afraid we would have to leave the injured animal to survive or die as it would naturally. It's a very hard thing to do but we are not allowed to interfere with the wildlife around our base. There can however be special cases. In April we noticed that one of the Fur seals was injured and in some distress. It had a piece of fishing wire caught around its neck affecting his breathing and causing some wounding. As humans caused this injury we thought that it was only right that we try and help. Without causing him any more distress someone was able to sneak up behind him and cut it off. We were all happy to see him playing and fighting with his friends later on that day.

How do you prevent fuel from freezing and what do you do if the fuel does freeze?

The fuel that we use in Antarctica is the same that is used in some planes and is made so that it will not freeze at the temperatures that we get here. But it does thicken a little, though not enough to cause problems. This fuel is called AVTUR and comes in 45 gallon /205 litre fuel drums. Sometimes the paraffin fuel used in our stoves can go a bit 'gloopy' when its extremely cold but this only happens at about minus 45 to 50, which is roughly the coldest temperatures we experience here.

Our fuel is supplied twice a year from our supply ship RRS Ernest Shackleton

When our fuel tank is nearly empty we raise the drums out of the snow and pump them into the tank which holds about 22,000 litres, so we use about three drums a day!