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Device hovers over the water
Photo Credit: Andrew Klein
A Smith-McIntyre grab sampler, a device with two sides that when it hits the bottom snaps together to form a bucket, is lowered into the water to scoop up samples from the seafloor. Scientists are beginning a monitoring program around Palmer Station to track pollutants.

Pristine protection

USAP begins environmental monitoring program around Palmer Station

The U.S. Antarctic Program (USAP) External U.S. government site will begin monitoring human impacts on the environment around its coastal research station off the Antarctic Peninsula, expanding a program that first began at McMurdo Station External U.S. government site about 15 years ago.

“The intent was always to take what we learned in McMurdo and apply it at other places, because we want to look at human impacts where they occur,” said Andrew Klein External Non-U.S. government site, an associate professor of Geography at Texas A&M University External Non-U.S. government site and principal investigator of the environmental monitoring program.

People stand on deck of ship.
Photo Courtesy: Andrew Klein
Texas A&M scientists Andrew Klein and Steve Sweet on the deck of the GOULD while collecting marine sediments for environmental monitoring.

Similar to the environmental monitoring program at McMurdo Station, which began with a three-year pilot project in 1999, scientists will collect terrestrial soil samples, marine sediments and even tissue samples from some of the critters that live within the seafloor near Palmer Station External Non-U.S. government site to gauge how well the USAP is limiting its environmental footprint. [See previous article — Containing contamination: McMurdo environmental monitoring project finds small signs of recovery.]

The researchers analyze the samples for a suite of contaminants, particularly hydrocarbons from crude oil, as well as trace metals and even legacy pollutants like polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), once used in coolants and other products but have been banned internationally since 2001.

Established during the austral summer of 1967-68, Palmer Station houses about 44 support personnel and scientists. The research vessel Laurence M. Gould External U.S. government site routinely visits the station throughout the year. Small rubber boats called Zodiacs are also used in the area. Fuel contamination is the biggest concern around Palmer Station.

Klein said he would expect to see lower levels of contamination at Palmer Station than at McMurdo Station, which is much larger. Environmental practices in the past were more lax until the establishment of the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection External Non-U.S. government site to the Antarctic Treaty External Non-U.S. government site, which requires environmental assessments of all activities.

“The activity level is so much less at Palmer than McMurdo,” Klein noted.

Bottles sit on a table.
Photo Credit: Andrew Klein
Marine seafloor sediment samples from near Palmer Station are prepared for shipment back to the United States.

He and Steve Sweet, a senior research associate at with the Geochemical and Environmental Research Group External Non-U.S. government site at Texas A&M University, visited Palmer Station in April and May of this year to begin developing the program, with a larger team scheduled to arrive during the same timeframe in 2014-15.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of Antarctica’s worst environmental disaster when the oil tanker Bahía Paraíso ran aground about three kilometers from Palmer Station. Some 600,000 liters of diesel oil spilled into the sea. (The incident would be overshadowed less than two months later by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound, Alaska, when at least 40 million liters of crude oil was released into the environment.)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) External U.S. government site, which manages the USAP, organized an emergency spill response team composed of experts from the U.S. Navy, NOAA, the U.S. Coast Guard External U.S. government site and private contractors. More than a dozen scientists with nine institutions from the United States, Chile and Argentina were brought to the scene to assess the environmental damage.

Polly Penhale, environmental officer for the NSF’s Division of Polar Programs External U.S. government site, was the Polar Programs biology program External U.S. government site manager at the time of the accident. She put together the quick-response team following the spill.

“Frankly, it was a challenge because I didn’t know anything about fuel spills and didn’t want to know anything about fuel spills – but it all worked out,” she said. “Now we’re establishing a new program that will provide a baseline to track potential environmental impacts from human disturbances moving forward.

“The NSF, through its management of the USAP, has helped lead the way among the international community in environmental stewardship of the fragile Antarctic environment,” she added.

Divers swim near a wreck.
Photo Credit: Peter Rejcek
Divers near the wreck of the Bahía Paraíso in January 2010.

Part of the Bahía Paraíso still sticks out of the water today. Klein and Sweet took advantage of being aboard the Gould to collect sediment samples from many of the same sites that were sampled a quarter-century ago aboard the research vessel Polar Duke.

“The circle is closing a little bit, so to speak,” Klein said of the return of Texas A&M to Palmer Station and the Bahía Paraíso wreck.

They deployed a Smith-McIntyre grab sampler, a device with two sides that when it hits the bottom snaps together to form a bucket, scooping up a sample of the seafloor. More than 20 samples were taken.

“This successful sampling will enable us to examine how petroleum hydrocarbon levels have changed over the intervening years since the Bahía Paraíso spill,” he said, as well as how the structure of the benthic biological communities may have changed.

Klein said the team would be able to compare their results from today against those in 1989 that were taken from the same locations. “Some of the differences we see could be due to different sampling approaches, the others due to real changes in the benthic community. It is, however, at least a chance for a comparison of sorts,” he said.

People in white T-shirts pose for a photo.
Photo Courtesy: Andrew Klein
Texas A&M scientists who were involved in the response to the 1989 Bahía Paraíso accident.

Divers collected marine sediment samples at another 19 sites near Palmer Station and Old Palmer, a facility used for a couple of years in the mid-1960s. Those sites represented areas with possible ongoing environmental impacts, according to Klein. The dives were relatively shallow, all less than 30 meters in depth.

“I was pretty happy with what we found,” Klein said, explaining that there was some expectation that it may be difficult to find suitable sediments to sample.

The team will also establish areas on Anvers Island, where Palmer Station is located, for collecting terrestrial soil samples. The relatively small size of the area will allow the researchers to set up a dense sampling grid. “We’ll be able to sample quite extensively at Palmer,” Klein said.

Human impacts on Antarctica have garnered big headlines in recent years. A study released last month suggested a surge in tourism, as well as increasing infrastructure for research facilities, is threatening the continent’s fragile ecosystem. Another study late last year reported finding a toxic flame retardant in the tissue of Adélie penguins.

“Our research will determine if there are any long-lasting effects of the spill and monitor other human activities to ensure there are no additional impacts,” Klein said.

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