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New solutions to Antarctic pollution

By Peter Williams - posted Wednesday, 15 May 2002

In the Northern Hemisphere, the Arctic (and other cold regions) are a huge source of riches. There is oil and gas in Russia and North America, lying below the permafrost, that may equal all that in the Middle East. Russia and Canada are diamond-producing countries with mines in the permafrost – ground which remains frozen, year in, year out, and which extends to a depth of a 1000 m. or more. The top of the permafrost, near the ground surface, may come and go as climates change. It is difficult ground to build on. Permafrost hundreds of metres down is thousands of years old and here to stay for a while.

Antarctica has riches of a different kind. Even if oil and gas were to be found, international agreements prevent any extraction of resources. Both polar regions have extraordinary, beautiful landscapes, but the relatively pristine and protected Antarctica has a special value for scientific research. Unfortunately, before the agreements were in place, wastes from scientific stations and the appurtenances of travel to and fro led to quite serious pollution of the ground.

Worldwide, contaminants in freezing ground are collectively, a billion dollar problem. The problem ranges from vast oil spills, pollution from large-scale mineral extraction (these directly threatening the well-being of people in Siberia) and wastes from military installations, to the contemporary issue of disposal of nuclear wastes. When one has a billion-dollar problem it is worthwhile to seek cost-effective solutions – which means scientifically-researched technologies.


Recent studies have shown frozen soil is an astonishingly complex microcosm. In among the soil particles and ice there are living bacteria. We know that that many contaminating substances can be broken down and thus removed by such bacteria, a procedure known as bioremediation. But it is still a somewhat haphazard, time consuming and much less effective procedure than it might be.

The bacteria are examples of extremophiles, that is they live under apparently extremely unsuitable conditions. Extremophiles of all kinds are presently a ‘hot’ topic in science. Some of the bacteria in permafrost survive for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of years, springing back into activity when there is a warming of the ground. Initial studies of their DNA lead us to believe that we shall be able to breed these bacteria so as to obtain sturdy varieties which combine a liking for cold cramped living spaces with an eager taste for the very substances we wish to see removed.

When one thinks how long it took mankind to breed productive plants and animals, it is exciting that we may have the power, through biotechnology (and with substantial expense of course) to have such useful bacteria within a few years. There are other technologies being developed, too, for example procedures of sophisticated chemical engineering. It is clear that teams of scientific specialists of various kinds (not just Polar specialists) working together, internationally, are our best investment in solving the problem. The optimum solution for the future is to avoid the contamination in the first place. We need reliable pipelines, safe, well-thought out management of nuclear wastes and improved industrial practices for the cold regions. We should be equally concerned with avoidance of contamination as with remediation. The same kinds of scientific knowledge are needed.

Although Australia has special involvements in Antarctica, in a broader view it shares the concerns and responsibilities of the ‘Arctic’ nations. Development of the cold regions, the all-important oil and gas for example, is instigated by giant international companies, largely supported by the investments of international organisations such as the World Bank. Thus the issues are truly global.

What is of particular concern is that Polar scientists, evolved as they have from a small coterie of polar explorers and on through the post-war decades of strongly scientific, often esoteric research in a multitude of topics, with the involvement of thousands, have not been called upon to the extent they should in solving the practical issues of contamination. Perhaps the most important challenge is to bring the issues to the attention of bankers, industrialists, politicians and others, who are responsible for the massive investments in the cold regions. They do not have the direct experience of the challenges of cold climates. They need to be convinced that cost-effective contaminant management requires new technologies based on scientific research. The financial rewards (or money saved - perhaps financial efficiencies is a a better term) depend strongly on the extent of investment in research.

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About the Author

Peter J. Williams is a senior associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, UK and Chairman, International Committee for the Conferences on Contaminants in Freezing Ground.

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Australian Antarctic Division
Scott Polar Research Institute
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