Dealing with Waste in Antarctica

Antarctic penguins

Though it is the most pristine continent on Earth, human activities are polluting Antarctica. (Photo credit: ©Photodynamic/Shutterstock)

Given Antarctica’s geographic isolation and extreme climate conditions, is has long been an area of interest to scientists. But what happens to all the waste generated by the annual influx of scientists and their support staff?

As of 2007, 20 different countries operate 37 year-round research stations. Argentina’s research station, the oldest still in operation, has been in use since 1904. The U.S. presence in Antarctica began in 1956 with the construction of McMurdo Station. Great Britain and Australia have operated research stations since 1947 and 1954, respectively.

Scientific research endeavors cover a variety of disciplines, including climate science, environmental science, geology, marine biology, astrophysics, astronomy, biology, earth science, and geophysics. Most research is conducted during Antarctica’s summer season, and during this time period, the human population of Antarctica swells to around 5,000 scientists and support staff. (An additional 25,000 – 30,000 people visit the area as tourists during this time period as well.) During the winter season, the population dramatically decreases; only about 1,000 overwinter on the continent.

Its isolated location and harsh climate makes Antarctica the most pristine continent on Earth. However, human activities are still felt there. Antarctica is one of the first places on Earth where the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide are being seen. The ozone hole was first discovered over Antarctica in the mid-1980s. Human-made chemicals have been detected in the snow that falls in Antarctica. While these occurrences may be the result of human activity far from the continent’s borders, human activities within Antarctica are also impacting the area’s environment. A large amount of waste is generated by the scientists and staff that support their research endeavors. The construction of buildings, some since abandoned, also litters the continent’s icy landscape.

The Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental Protection, first signed in 1959, designates Antarctica as a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science. The Treaty specifically prohibits mineral mining, military activities, nuclear explosions, and nuclear waste disposal, but supports scientific research and environmental protection. In 1991, the Treaty was extended for an additional 50 years. The Treaty was initially signed by 12 counties, including the United States; today 49 countries are a part of the Treaty. According to Antarctic law, all active research stations must remove all their trash from the environment. Human sewage and food waste are permitted to be discharged into the sea, though many stations have installed biological treatment plants and incinerators to deal with these waste products in a more environmentally-friendly way.

Because there is little enforcement of the environmental regulations, not all countries deal with waste in the same ways. For example, while some countries ship out as much trash as possible, others simply bury their trash. Over time, many research stations have upgraded their waste removal methods to better protect the environment. McMurdo Station scientists used to incinerate their trash and would haul any leftover refuse into a volcanic crater. Up into the 1970s, worn out or broken equipment would be hauled out onto the seasonal ice; as a result of the summer thaw, this equipment would find its way to the bottom of the McMurdo Sound — not exactly the most environmentally-friendly practice. In 1978, President Carter signed the Antarctic Conservation Act into law. This Act set guidelines for wildlife conservation, specially-protected habitats, and pollution control. Today, there is an extensive recycling system set up at McMurdo Station, burnable trash is returned to the States for processing, and sewage is treated, strained, and UV-filtered before being returned to the sea.

More to Explore
Waste, Pollution and Clean Up in Antarctica
Antarctica: Pollution and Waste
Marine Ecosystems of Antarctica Under Threat from Human Activity
Seedy Scientists are Polluting Antarctica


  1. Bo H Whitteker says

    The world is becoming over populated so research facilities can become trial runs for people to actually begin living in remote places. As stated in the article research facilities are becoming better at getting rid of of their waste. As long as progress keeps up in that area these facilities will be good.

  2. Austin Baker says

    The environments in Antarctica is an area of large biodiversity. laws were put into effect to help prevent the destruction of the environment. many precautionary measures have been put into effect to help the environment. any trash that is in the antarctic is hauled back to the states to be disposed of properly. Human waste is seperated, filtered and then safely returned to the sea.

  3. test-teacher says


  4. Tyler Rigsby says

    Climate change needs to stop, pollution is killing Antarctica. All waste from all countries should be handled properly so there the pollution is cut down on earth. If this doesnt happen everything will die off from toxic air.

  5. Antarctica is the most pristine continent on the earth that is being polluted by human activities. In order to protect the environment, laws and guidelines were put into place for the waste and sewage problem. The recycling system that sends the trash to the US to be strained, processed and UV-filtered before returning it back into the sea.

  6. Y

  7. I agree with what they are doing t help to ecosystems around the world and the metheds maybe unortuadocks but how they do it to help in any way posible then thats how were going to thrive for a long time.

  8. Humans are harming Antarctica by pollution and that is something that can be stopped. Climate change is not good and needs to come to an end. Eventually we will all die off by harmful toxins in the air from littering. In order to keep the continent pristine it will have to be a group effort to clean up and stop littering.

  9. Antarctica is a very diverse environment. Efforts have been made to prevent the depletion of the environment. Trash is hauled back into the states and properly disposed of. All of the human waste is filtered and also disposed of properly.

  10. Brandon Hunsaker says

    The laws in Antarctica were made to help keep the country alive. The laws put an end to major problems happening in the country. Besides one thing, They were still allowed to dumb human sewage and food waste into the ocean. Which causes toxic beaches and happens to be waste that is not biodegradeable. So it will be there for multiple years.

  11. colson stovall says

    the excessive out put of carbon dioxide causes a green house effect on the earth and warms the earth up over its original temperature causing ice to melt faster than usual. this takes away homes from animals and causes them to die. we need more car pools and more people riding bikes.

  12. Lauren Baird says

    The regulations and protocols put in place to protect the Antarctic environment are of great value. This continent is so important to the development of scientific research and plant and animal life, and this program has enabled it to environmentally progress. Other countries that are facing pollution and environmental problems should consider implementing a program similar to the Antarctic Treaty’s Protocol on Environmental protection. Proper disposal of waste is key to the better protection of the environment worldwide.

  13. Cassidy Russell says

    Antarctica’s laws set in place to protect the environment are a good way to keep Antarctica stable. Not all countries take the precautions like Antarctica has. Pollution is a dangerous and important issue in the world today. Many places do not have laws in place to keep the environment safe. People everywhere should take the precautions and learn how to keep their environments as clean as possible.

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