What are we doing?

Antarctica is relatively isolated from human impacts.  Most people who come to the Antarctic are visitors or are here for short periods of time to support research.  However, even the small human populations have an effect on Antarctic life.  Our research focuses on one of the direct impacts of humans in the Antarctic:  sewage.  The largest base on the continent, McMurdo Station, houses over 1100 people during the summer months, and up until now, sewage has been discharged directly into the ocean.  This season, a treatment plant will start operating, and we will begin studying the recovery of the seafloor community.

 

 

What has the Sewage done? 

The seafloor community in McMurdo Sound is rich and colorful.  The "moon" in the background is the hole in the ice we dive through.

Fourteen years ago the Benthic Lab began research on pollution near McMurdo Station.  We tracked community changes over time in undisturbed areas, and in the area next to the outfall.  Near the outfall, the numbers of different kinds of animals, or diversity, dropped.  The normal community, a mixture of small crustaceans, echinoderms, and polychaetes, was replaced by a community dominated only by polychaete worms.  We predict that with the treatment plant in place, the community will recover to its normal high diversity of animals.

 The benthic community near the sewage outfall has fewer kinds of animals.  (Photo credit Rob Robbins)

 

 

How do we work?  

 

Stacy Kim puts on her dive gear

We dive with scuba and surface supply systems to conduct our experiments.  But there are some challenges to diving in the Antarctic, like how do you get into an ocean covered by 2 m of ice?  And how do you survive in water that is -1.5 C?  There is an excellent support system at McMurdo Station, provided by Raytheon Polar Services Corporation under contract to the National Science Foundation.  To get into the ocean, tractors tow drilling equipment over the ice, and drill 1.2 m diameter holes down 2 or more meters until they reach seawater.  The ocean is colder than freshwater freezing temperature because the salt in seawater disrupts the formation of ice crystals.  We use drysuits and lots of fleece clothing to keep us warm while we dive.

 John Oliver in his drysuit under the ice.  

 

Why are we doing this? 

The Antarctic is considered one of the most pristine habitats on our planet, a place where ecological processes operate undisturbed by human influences.  Humans occupy only a tiny portion of the continent.  By seeking to understand how human impacts change the Antarctic ecosystem, we can broaden our understanding of ecology in areas where human presence and effects are more common.  At McMurdo Station, every single person has the support of the National Science Foundation in cleaning up existing pollution and preventing further contamination, and we are proud to be contributing to this effort.

A diver marvels at the shapes and colors of ice underwater in the Antarctic

 

Funded by:

David and Judi Zaches and 

 

In Cooperation with:

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