Pollutants in Antarctica

The levels of pollutants in Antarctica are, in general, lower than elsewhere in the world. This applies to those in the air, water, sediments, animals and plants, and is primarily because there is less industry and farming in the Southern Hemisphere. Conditions in Antarctica are important for how the pollutants are taken up in the environment, are dispersed and the types of effects they may have. Antarctica is cold, has little precipitation, no industry and only a few human settlements. The pollutants present in the Antarctic are therefore chiefly transported from far away (in the atmosphere or by ocean currents) and accumulate in ice and snow. Few investigations exist on the level of pollutants in the marine food chains in Antarctica.

The emission of pollutants like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) has been of greatest significance in the Antarctic because they have contributed strongly to the depletion of the ozone layer over the continent. This, in turn, has had consequences for animal and plant life which has been exposed to radiation. The hole in the ozon layer over Antarctica is monitored by, among others, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

In the summer thaw, pollutants are liberated from snow and ice, chiefly that from the previous year. However, concern is being felt for the side-effects of a warmer climate, since pollutants that accumulate in ice, in particular, but also in permafrost or soil, may be liberated over time.

Because the pollutant problem has so far not been regarded as significant in Antarctica, there is no overall monitoring programme for pollutants here. The Antarctic Peninsula and Ross Bay are the two most investigated areas.

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