NEKO BAY, Antarctica — On the 2 percent of Antarctica that isn't covered in ice, the juxtaposition of man-made refuse and Planet Earth-worthy wildlife tableaux is far from rare. But cleaning up that prime real estate is complicated by the nature of the debris, much of which is deemed "historical" and thus unmovable.
Marlow is from Denver and is currently earning a Ph.D. at Imperial College London, working on the European Space Agency's ExoMars rover.
There aren't exactly piles of trash covering Antarctica, but the waste’s location on biologically active shores makes it most disruptive to both wildlife and other human visitors. On a rocky outcrop overlooking Neko Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula, a sheet of red corrugated iron shares space with several hundred gentoo penguins.
Over the last few days, we’ve seen several signs of previous human activity, including a wrecked early–20th-century whaling vessel, some wooden water boats, a rusting sledge and a decrepit shack. Determining which structures hold legitimate historical or cultural value and which should be removed is a contentious task without any clear answers.
The answer for some structures is obvious. Even the strictest conservationist would concede the cultural and historical value of sites like Captain Scott’s hut on the Ross Sea or Mawson's camp in Cape Denison. But significant quantities of disused buildings and machinery dating from the last several decades are a different story.
"An old whaling station is a real mess," said Robert Swan, a stubborn Antarctic conservationist and the first man to walk to both poles. "It’s revolting, but actually it’s not, because it’s a statement saying 'Don’t think of Antarctica as pristine: We were about to come and pillage the place.'"
A few dismal landscapes may have a cautionary function "as a reminder of what could have been," had humanity not declared the Antarctic off-limits, said Graham Charles, a guide and adventurer who has worked in the Antarctic for 15 years. "The rest of them are junk piles, and it’s just abysmal."
There’s plenty of accumulated trash to ship off the continent. From 1994 to 2002, Swan helped the Russian Bellingshausen station on King George Island offload 1,500 tons of garbage that had accumulated since the Cold War. The effort cost $6 million and took eight years, but native penguins soon reclaimed their beach, and the station is a much more pleasant place to visit and live.
Retroactive efforts like the Bellingshausen cleanup will likely continue to take significant amounts of both money and time, but legal frameworks in the last 20 years have helped address waste problems at more recent bases: According to Antarctic law, any active bases must remove all trash from the continent. How each nation manages this mandate varies widely, and regulation is nearly nonexistent.
"Most bases are diligent enough to take their trash out on a ship," Charles said. "But a lot of them have just turned over the soil and buried it."
The designation of "historical" structures and sites remains uncodified and controversial, but there is still plenty of uncontroversial trash that still must be shipped out of Antarctica. Without regulation or public accountability, however, illegal Antarctic dumping is likely to continue. In the meantime, penguins, seals and human visitors alike are learning to live with wood and iron.
—Jeff Marlow for Wired.com