When thinking about the seventh continent, the first thought likely to come to mind is that this frozen region is one of the few places on the globe where humans have not instigated major environmental issues, and where forces of nature are more relevant than human activity. Any Internet search related to Antarctica will reveal hundreds of images of pristine glacial landscapes, sepia-toned photographs of early Antarctic explorers, sophisticated modern research stations and, of course, penguins.
Unfortunately, this is only half of the truth. Any attempt to write an environmental history of Antarctica would remain incomplete without taking into account how human activity has shaped the continent. During a recent visit to Antarctica I visited Stonington Island—a tiny, barren island just south of the Antarctic Circle. While it is a feast for any lover of barren polar landscapes, it was neither the glaciers nor the seals that caught my attention. Just behind the remains of the East Base—the ruins of the United States Antarctic Service Expedition (1939–41) research station—the area looks more like a scrapyard than a pristine Antarctic environment. Industrial debris and the wrecks of two long-abandoned tracked vehicles are scattered over an area of several hundred square meters.
Even if we might be willing to understand the vehicles as part of the industrial heritage of Antarctica—as I certainly am—questions about the debris remain. When did Antarctic exploration and research reach such a scale whereby its negative impacts could no longer be denied? A consensus had clearly not yet been reached when this debris was left; today’s research regulations require that all scrap material and other waste must be shipped out of Antarctica.