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Researchers pack pee, not pests to aid Antarctic

Researchers try to minimize the impact of human activity on the pristine environment of the Antarctic.
Image: McMurdo Station
Antarctica's McMurdo Station, which is crucial to the study of climate change and other global environmental issues, and is located in one of the most remote and harshest climates in the world, is seen on Nov. 16, 2006.Ted S. Warren / AP
/ Source: a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/front.htm" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

There's nothing like carrying a pee bottle to remind you of your personal impact on the environment.

Staffers with the National Science Foundation's U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) mentioned pee bottles during an environmental awareness lecture for our seven-person media group when we got to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, in January. We had already passed an online test and absorbed a packet of reading materials. Now, as we prepared to visit some of the most exotic places on Earth, lead environmental specialist Kevin Pettway told us that when we visited protected areas, we'd carry those pee bottles -- and that we would be responsible for cleaning them when we got back to McMurdo.

Antarctica is the world's coldest, windiest, highest and driest continent. But from our first day in this polar desert, I realized how delicate the Antarctic environment is.

Some of the most important scientific research in the world has taken place in Antarctica over the past 50 years, including the discovery that chlorofluorocarbons led to the formation of the ozone hole. An ice core drilling project now underway will provide the most detailed greenhouse gas record for the past 100,000 years.

Yet the pursuit of that scientific knowledge has damaged some of last pristine wilderness on Earth. Raw sewage was dumped into coastal waters from 1957 until 2003. Landfills of solid waste accumulated for years on icy hills nearby. Nonnative spiders, mosses and fruit flies now inhabit McMurdo Station, the hub of the United States' three permanent research stations.

The 'steel colony'
A McMurdo staff member recalled her first few summer seasons on the job more than 20 years ago: "They used to dump all the scrap metal out on the ice in a huge pile. We called it the 'steel colony' [instead of 'seal colony'] and at the end of the summer when the icebreaker came through, it would fall through the ice into the Sound."

The waste and its contaminants are still sitting at the bottom of Winter Quarters Bay in McMurdo Sound; removing them would damage the ecosystem even more, according to Pettway.

Today, the international community's management of the Antarctic environment has come a long way, and many of the Antarctic Treaty nations, including the United States, continue to make strides to reduce their impact.

A state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant began operating at McMurdo in 2003, treating human waste and gray water from the more than 1,000 staff there each summer and the few hundred each winter. Other countries, such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand, operate treatment plants at their research stations. Twenty countries run 40 year-round research stations.

Human waste from most field camps is shipped off-continent, while human waste from the U.S. Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is buried in the ice sheet. About 250 people live and work at the South Pole during the summer, and about 50 stay on during the winter. Given that the ice sheet below the station moves an average of 30 feet per year, today's human waste will end up in the Southern Ocean in more than 140,000 years.

Management of solid waste has also improved. Recycling is mandatory at U.S. stations, and 65 percent of solid waste -- such as plastic, glass, paper and construction materials -- is recycled. All solid waste is shipped to landfills in California and Chile.

'Don't pack a pest' motto
While the impact of human activities on land and ice has decreased fairly rapidly, concern has mounted about commercial activities in the Southern Ocean, particularly overfishing and tourism. More than 45,000 tourists visited the Antarctic in the 2007-2008 season, most of them traveling by ship to the Antarctic islands and peninsula, where wildlife is most prevalent.

A large focus is placed on preventing the introduction of nonnative species and the cross-contamination of species across the region, especially on the Antarctica's peninsula and islands, where warming temperatures have made ecosystems more hospitable to nonnatives. The "Don't Pack a Pest" motto reminds people to clean and check their boots, gear and clothing when entering sub-Antarctic and Antarctic regions.

"We investigate spiders, we investigate fruit flies . . . and we try to capture the problem and remediate it as soon as possible," said Pettway.

The environment was not a priority for the USAP and similar programs of other nations when they were created to support the International Geophysical Year 1957-1958, an effort to observe the physical properties of Earth, with a special emphasis on Antarctica.

As environmental awareness grew in the 1970s, many governments operating in Antarctica began to take steps to reduce the impact of their science research. The United States enacted the Antarctic Conservation Act in 1978. Greenpeace brought international attention to the damage to the environment when it performed its own inspection of several Antarctic research stations in the mid-1980s, putting the spotlight on the U.S. dumping of untreated sewage into McMurdo Sound and a French station's plan to construct an airstrip in a penguin habitat.

The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, which took effect in 1998, sets Antarctica aside "as a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science" for at least 50 years, protecting the region from oil and mineral exploitation, among other threats.

The McMurdo Dry Valleys region is one of 78 areas specially protected under the Antarctic Treaty. Part of the 2 percent of the continent that is ice-free, it hasn't received rain or snow for hundreds of thousands of years. While touring one of the valleys in a helicopter, the pilot pointed out jeep tracks imprinted in the permafrost 50 years ago; they looked as though they were fresh.

Cape Hallett, a protected area on the coast of McMurdo Sound, was home to New Zealand's Hallett Station until it was closed in 2005. The U.S., New Zealand and Italian Antarctic programs teamed up to remove storage tanks and contaminated soil from this hard-to-reach site. The site's Adélie penguin colony has a population higher than it was before the station was built.

1500-year-old drinking water
Alternative energy initiatives include a new wind project serving both McMurdo Station and New Zealand's Scott Base, which are about three miles apart. Three wind turbines are generating more than a megawatt of electricity per hour for the stations. If all continues to go well in the test phase, more turbines will be added. David Zybowski, maintenance manager at McMurdo, expects the station to eventually operate on 20 percent wind power.

Collecting drinking water can be a challenge even though Antarctica contains about 70 percent of the world's freshwater in the form of ice. Ice is melted or seawater is filtered, which both require energy.

At some field camps, such as the temporary camp at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide ice core drilling project, drinking water is obtained using human energy: If a scientist wants a shower, he shovels a 45-gallon barrel of snow, which is then melted and heated for a two-minute shower.

At the South Pole station, staff are allowed only two, two-minute showers per week throughout the year. Ice from deep in the ice sheet is melted for drinking water. (The water I drank during my visit was from around A.D. 500.)

At the end of February, the USAP makes its last flights to Antarctica before winter arrives in the Southern Hemisphere, the continent falls into complete darkness for six months and temperatures approach 100 degrees below zero. The stations get enough fuel, food and other supplies to last until the first flight of the summer arrives in late August. Staffing is cut, activity is reduced to monitoring essential science programs, and the human impact on the delicate Antarctic environment is minimal.

Posegate is outreach coordinator for the weather and environment program at the National Environmental Education Foundation. She also writes for the Capital Weather Gang blog at http://www.washingtonpost.com.