Dr Catherine King - ecotoxicologist

Scientists of the Antarctic: Dr Catherine King

Video transcript

Wherever there’s humans and human activities there’s the risk of contamination and impacts for the environment. So in Antarctica this could be legacy wast tip sites, wastewater discharges from our stations, or accidental fuel spills.

My research includes field assessments as well as laboratory experiments to look at the sensitivity and the vulnerability of Antarctic animals and plants to a range of contaminants and environmental stressors.

We hope that the protocols and the methods we develop, and the recommendations we make, are taken up by other Antarctic Treaty nations.

This work is hugely important on a global scale to maintain the biodiversity and the integrity of Antarctica as the last great wilderness on Earth. And also to ensure that our ongoing presence in Antarctica has minimal effects on the environment there.

I get to conduct field work in Antarctica which is in my opinion the most special place on Earth. So that’s probably what drives me, the environment there, the wilderness, the penguins, my favourite animals, as well as the tight, close-knit community and the friendships that are formed there that are enduring and everlasting.

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Dr Catherine (Cath) King: BSc (Hons), PhD, GradDipEd

Research interests

I am a Senior Research Scientist, leading the Ecotoxicology Research group, and am the Section Leader for the Human Impact and Remediation team within the Antarctic Conservation and Management Program at the Australian Antarctic Division. I have approximately 30 years’ experience in the fields of ecotoxicology and environmental risk assessment. As an international leader in Antarctic environmental science, I work to build and maintain collaborations, and manage diverse multidisciplinary teams. We deliver strategically important scientific research that contributes to evidenced-based decision making in policy and operational developments both for the Australian Antarctic program, and internationally through the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP).

I joined the Australian Antarctic Division as a Research Scientist in 2005, where I have developed a portfolio of ecotoxicology research. Much of my research focuses on determining the sensitivity of a range of species to common contaminants that occur in the Antarctic environment, especially metals, fuels and complex wastewater mixtures. My contamination research encompasses both marine and terrestrial environments, with the ultimate aim of developing site-specific Environmental Quality Guidelines and Remediation Targets for waters, soils and sediments in Antarctica and subantarctic regions. My Antarctic research portfolio has included over 25 Antarctic-based research projects, and the supervision of over 30 postgraduate research students.

Prior to my time with the Antarctic Division, I was based at the Centre for Environmental Contaminants Research at CSIRO in Sydney as a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow. I conducted research on the bioavailability and toxicity of contaminants in waters and sediments to marine invertebrates, and contributed to the development of the first Handbook for Sediment Quality Assessment for Australia. This followed on from work conducted during my Doctor of Philosophy (University of Sydney, Australia, 1999), in which I investigated the impact of metals, organics and complex wastewaters on early life stages of marine invertebrates. My doctoral project was a collaboration with the Aquatic Toxicology group at Sydney Water, with whom I worked as an environmental scientist. My first experience in Antarctica was also during this time, when I joined the Human Impacts Research Program in the 1996–97 and 1997–98 summers to conduct research on the impact of the legacy rubbish tip site in the Thala Valley at Casey station on nearshore ecosystems. This work provided robust scientific evidence of the impacts of contamination from the tip site and provided some of the impetus to remove waste, and to remediate the site. Contaminated site assessment, clean up and remediation, continues to be a core focus for the Antarctic Division's scientific program.

Current projects

  • Development of environmental risk assessment and remediation guidelines for Antarctic and subantarctic marine and terrestrial environments (AAS 4100; Chief Investigator)
  • Atmospheric carbon fixation: a novel strategy driving niche development and climate adaptation in polar desert soils (AAS 4406)
  • Using indigenous terrestrial micro-invertebrates to assess environmental impacts of soil pollution in Antarctica (AAS 4450)
  • Ecophysiological forecasting for mitigating environmental change in Antarctica (AAS 4307)
  • Predicting contaminant toxicity and risk in polar systems (AAS 4326)
  • When Sinks Become Sources; Understanding Persistent Organic Pollutant Behaviour in Dynamic Polar Environments (AAS 4332)
  • Remediation of petroleum contaminants in the Antarctic and subantarctic (AAS 4036)
  • Human impacts of Antarctic stations on nearshore ecosystems (AAS 4180)

International/national collaborations

  • CSIRO
  • Deakin University
  • Griffith University
  • Macquarie University
  • Monash University
  • RMIT University
  • Southern Cross University
  • University of NSW
  • University of Sydney
  • University of Tasmania
  • University of Western Sydney
  • University of Wollongong

Key outcome areas

  • Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP)
  • Australian Antarctic Division Strategies Branch (Policy) and Support Centre (Operations)
  • Australian Government – ANZECC/ARMCANZ Australian and New Zealand guidelines for fresh and marine water quality
  • Australian Government – National State of Environment (SoE) reporting
  • Tasmanian Government

Related links

Selected publications

Koppel DJ, Adams MA, King CK, Jolley DF (2018). Chronic toxicity of an environmentally relevant and equitoxic ratio of five metals to two Antarctic marine microalgae show complex mixture interactivity. Environmental Pollution 242: 1319-1330.

Dawson A, Kawaguchi S, King CK, Townsend K, King R, Huston W, Bengtson Nash S (2018). Turning Microplastics into Nanoplastics: Digestive Fragmentation by Antarctic krill. Nature Communications 9: 1001.

Holan J, King CK, Davis AR (2018). Comparative copper sensitivity between life stages of common subantarctic marine invertebrates.Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 37(3): 807-815.

Errington I, King CK, Wilkins D, Spedding T, Hose GC (2018) Ecosystem effects and the management of petroleum-contaminated soils on subantarctic islands. Chemosphere 194: 200-210.

See all of Dr King's publications in Google Scholar.