Antarctica Is Running Out of Wilderness

One reason the status of a station is so hard to establish is that, with limited access and grueling conditions, it’s difficult to say whether a station is abandoned or simply rarely open. “Some of what appear to be abandoned or characterized by abandonment are summer-only stations—they may open for a few weeks, they may be used periodically, but they are listed in treaty documents and reports as being stations,” Polly Penhale, a senior environmental adviser at the National Science Foundation, told us. “So abandoned isn’t quite the right word.” Unused stations can still mark a country’s global strength: “They’re ‘ghost’ stations,” Klaus Dodds, a geopolitics professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, says, “partly on the grounds of cost, but partly on the grounds that parties don’t want to admit that actually nothing is going on.”

Right: Eitan Abramovich / AFP / Getty; Left: Alessandro Dahan / Getty

Global strength can be projected onto Antarctica in other ways: Bulgaria, for example, has little scientific presence there but over the past 10 years has named at least 1,000 out of 1,500 newly named locations in Antarctica—a cheap way to denote presence, however spectral, on the continent, Hemmings said. But, in a very practical sense, the difference between naming a place and putting an unoccupied building there is straightforward as the physical building can create a lasting environmental impact.

In the 1950s, for instance, the United States and New Zealand opened a joint base near large colonies of Adélie penguins in Cape Hallett. The station and roads, which ran through nesting areas, evicted more than 7,000 penguins, including 3,000 chicks. Or look at the Australian station Wilkes, first established by the United States. When it was abandoned in 1969, thousands of tons of hazardous waste were left frozen into the ground. Some years, big melts have released those chemicals, heavy metals, and hydrocarbons: Scientists have spotted oil sheens near penguin populations and in water where mollusks and other animals live. “It’s kind of a ticking time bomb for that to be released,” Brooks, the University of Tasmania researcher, said.

Because so many stations are unmonitored, or abandoned, these sorts of trouble spots dot the ice. Along the coast, multiple South African stations (SANAE I, II, and III) have been crushed and buried by snow and abandoned completely. A cleanup of the British station at Fossil Bluff, the CEP chair Hughes said, involved moving “all sorts of nasty things,” including medical waste and feces. Incidents like these have serious environmental consequences, Rachel Leihy, who studied the human impact on Antarctica as a doctoral student at Monash University’s School of Biological Sciences, wrote to us in an email. Buried structures, she added, will be “ejected into the sea as ice sheets move,” and “bring pollution risks.”

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