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Tuesday, 20 November, 2001, 14:20 GMT
Preserving the last wilderness
Dry valley, Antarctica
Scott and Shackleton set off from the Ross Sea region
By Kim Griggs in Wellington, New Zealand

The environmental state of Antarctica's Ross Sea region is, for the most part, pristine, "exceptionally so by global standards," according to a new report.

But the report from the New Zealand Antarctic Institute also points out "significant gaps" in knowledge about most aspects of the area.

Ice berg: Antarctica New Zealand
Waste products from research stations were dumped on to the sea ice until recently
The Ross Sea region covers the slice of Antarctica claimed by New Zealand and from which explorers Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen made their polar forays.

"That's probably the other huge thing to come through in the report: the lack of information we have about a whole heap of things, even though people have been working down here for 50 years," says Emma Waterhouse, the report's editor and environmental manager for the New Zealand Antarctic Institute.

The 280-page document, which aims to be a benchmark for understanding the Ross Sea region, is the first of its kind to be written for any part of Antarctica or the Southern Ocean.

Long-term threats

Externally, climate change and ozone depletion are the major threats to the ecosystems of the Ross Sea region, the report says.

"The thing that struck me... is that climate change and ozone depletion have the biggest potential to impact across the whole region," Ms Waterhouse says. "And we're not talking short-term impacts. We're talking about altering the plants and the animals and how the whole ecosystem works into the future."

Report cover: Antarctica New Zealand
The report identifies risks from tourism, climate change and pollution
Locally, there are impacts from even the relatively small number of people in the Ross Sea region, despite a rapidly changing environmental consciousness.

Three stations - New Zealand's Scott Base, McMurdo Station run by the United States and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station - are operated year-round, while Italy's Terra Nova and Germany's Gondwana are summer-only stations.

For much of the past 50 years, solid waste products were just dumped on to the sea ice by the McMurdo and Scott Base stations and then allowed to drift to the bottom of the sea floor, the report says.

Sewage treatment

But in the past decade, solid waste has been taken back home. Also the practice of discharging sewage and waste water into the sea will soon be a thing of the past, the report says. Both Scott Base and McMurdo plan to begin operating sewage treatment plants in the 2002-03 austral summer seasons.


We need to look at the Ross Sea region as a whole and not just sit in our own bases and do our own thing

Emma Waterhouse, report author
"What we've seen happening is the national programmes have got their act together in terms of their environmental management, and particularly in terms of waste and fuel management," Ms Waterhouse says.

But other potential risks - such as a large scale fuel spill - remain.

"The potential impacts of that are huge, but the risks are getting smaller and smaller as we develop much better systems and much better storage. But that risk is still there," according to Ms Waterhouse.

Tourism impact

The unknowns are the fledgling Antarctic activities of tourism and fishing.

"We have very low levels of those activities now but we don't actually know how they might develop in the future and we don't have good information on which to base management decisions."

One key to ensuring Antarctica remains a pristine wilderness will be to encourage more regional co-operation, the report argues.

"If we are to make significant steps forward in terms of minimising impacts in the future," Ms Waterhouse says, "then all of the people who operate down here - and that includes the fisheries management, the tourism management, and includes all the national science programmes - we need to look at the Ross Sea region as a whole and not just sit in our own bases and do our own thing."

Photographs courtesy of The New Zealand Antarctic Institute.

See also:

18 Oct 01 | Sci/Tech
Antarctic cores reveal ice history
31 Mar 98 | Sci/Tech
Lost lake beneath Antarctic ice-cap
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