We are working to protect Antarctic and sub-Antarctic environments from contaminants. We use a range of methods to develop Environmental Quality Guidelines (EQGs) and remediation targets for common contaminants (such as fuels and metals like copper, cadmium, zinc and lead) in marine and terrestrial environments.

EQGs can be used in environmental risk assessments to predict the possible impacts of human activities on the environment and biota. EQGs provide science–based goals for ecosystem quality and remediation (clean-up) targets. Once developed, these tools will inform Australia’s remediation activities, including at fuel spill sites at Casey and Macquarie Island. The tools will allow us to determine when these sites are no longer a significant environmental risk.

Guideline frameworks are well established in Australia, but no such guidelines for soils or marine waters exist for the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions. Developing tools and guidelines that are specific to these regions will enable us to manage contaminants found at our sites. Impacted sites include areas near rubbish tips, fuel spill sites, sewage discharge sites and around Antarctic stations.

To develop the tools, we are using a suite of ecotoxicology methods to assess how local species respond to contaminants. Toxicity tests are conducted at our research stations and at the AAD headquarters in Kingston, Tasmania.

Toxicity tests indicate the levels of specific contaminants that are likely to impact local Antarctic biota.

The biota used for tests are cultured and kept healthy in our portable, purpose–built field aquarium in Antarctica, and in our cold water marine research facilities at Kingston. Tests include single species, microbial community genetic traits, soil health indicators and processes, as well as more novel multispecies and community–based approaches. These latter measures are more complex to assess, but they can provide more realistic results.

To find out if a species is sensitive to a contaminant, we first need to establish standard test protocols for each of the species we work with. One of the challenges for this work is that standard toxicity test methods had not been established for native polar biota before. The AAD has now developed protocols for a number of Antarctic species, including:

  • 3 terrestrial mosses (Schistidium antarctici, Bryum pseudotriquetrum and Ceratodon purpureus)
  • a terrestrial algae (Prasiola crispa)
  • marine microalgae (Phaeocystis antarctica and Cryothecomonas armigera)
  • a range of marine invertebrates (including copepod Oncaea curvata, amphipods Orchomenella pinguides and Paramoera walkeri, microgastropod Skenella paludinoides, ostracod Bradleya antarctica, polychaete Spirorbis nordenskjoldi and sea urchin Sterechinus neumayeri).

For the sub-Antarctic, tests have been developed for:

  • an earthworm (Microscolex macquariensis)
  • plants (including Poa foliosa, Colobanthus muscoides and Luzula crinita)
  • a range of marine invertebrates (including isopod Exosphaeroma gigas, bivalve Gaimardia trapesina, copepod Tigriopus angulatus, flatworm Obrimoposthia ohlini, and sea cucumber Pseudopsolus macquariensis).

This area of research is led by Dr Catherine King, Senior Research Scientist (Ecotoxicology) at the Australian Antarctic Division.

Contamination research is conducted by the Human impacts and remediation team within the Antarctic Conservation and Management Program.