Antarctic research jigsaw piece in global puzzle

8 October 2001
University of Waikato researchers in Antarctica are part of a global partnership that is monitoring the world's environment.

Dr Megan Balks, from the University's Earth Sciences Department, is preparing for her 10th trip to Antarctica this summer to continue her research into the effects of human activities on the ice-free areas of Antarctica.

Dr Balks is working with a team from the United States Department of Agriculture, who are measuring atmospheric and soil climates at key Antarctic locations as well as sites in the Arctic and Tibet. The sites all have permafrost (frozen soils) and are expected to be particularly sensitive to any changes in climate.

The climate data from the Antarctic sites are incorporated into a global polar monitoring programme, to which 22 nations contribute data, to see what effects environmental changes are having around the world.

Three climate stations have been established at Bull Pass, Marble Point and Scott Base, with a fourth to be introduced this summer on the margin of the polar plateau.

It was the University's work, in conjunction with Landcare Research, into the impacts of fuel spills that caught the attention of the US Department of Agriculture.

The oil-spill research investigates the effects of spills and leaks on Antarctic soils.

Accidental oil spills have occurred near research stations, as well as leaks in oil pipelines points out Dr Balks. However, in order to run aircraft and vehicles, petrol and oil must be used and stored, so it is an ever-present concern.

Marble Point, which in the 1950s was used as a construction camp, has several areas of fuel spill says Dr Balks. She adds that because of the nature of the Antarctic climate, those spills are still there and visible over 40 years after their emplacement.

The question being asked by researchers, is if a spill occurs, how should it be handled? Dr Balks says that methods used in other parts of the globe are not always suitable for Antarctic conditions.

In more recent times, on sites that have had spills, the soil has been removed. The research undertaken by the University and Landcare shows that this practice may cause more harm than good at some sites, and that the contaminated area is much larger than just the surface soil.

Each year graduate students from Waikato University continue the research in Antarctica

Dr Balks and her associates are currently preparing a paper on their research, which will be presented at 17th World Congress of Soil Science, in August 2002.