Nav: Home

Potential for Antarctica to become plastics dumping ground and home for new species

July 17, 2018

Antarctica is not as isolated from the rest of the world as scientists have thought, new research reveals, with potential for drifting plastics to create problems in the continent in future and new species to colonise there as the climate warms.

The research reported today in Nature Climate Change by an international, multidisciplinary team of scientists including Professor Jon Waters from the University of Otago's Zoology Department and led by former PhD student Dr Ceridwen Fraser, shows kelp had drifted 20,000km to reach the Antarctica - making it the longest known biological rafting event ever recorded.

To get there, the kelp - which drifted all the way from the Kerguelen Islands in the Southern Indian Ocean - had to pass through barriers created by polar winds and currents that were, until now, thought to be impenetrable.

DNA samples taken from the kelp revealed it had drifted from the Kerguelen Islands and another specimen from South Georgia. This meant the routes they took to reach Antarctica must have been tens of thousands of kilometres long.

"This study shows that Antarctica is not as biologically isolated as previously thought - by demonstrating that rafting biological material can cross Southern Ocean barriers to reach the shores of Antarctica," Professor Waters explains.

The research changes the way scientists think about Southern Ocean oceanography, where storms can play a big role moving drifting material. The findings have important implications for the science of ocean drift that is used to track plastics, aeroplane crash debris and other floating material across our seas.

"The results suggest that Antarctica won't be immune from drifting plastics that are increasingly a problem in the world's marine ecosystems," Professor Waters says.

"It also highlights the potential for new species to colonise Antarctica as the climate warms."

Lead author Dr Fraser, a former University of Otago PhD student now based at the Australian National University, says the finding shows living plants and animals can reach Antarctica across the ocean, with temperate and sub-Antarctic marine species probably bombarding Antarctic coastlines all the time.

"We always thought Antarctic plants and animals were distinct because they were isolated, but this research suggests these differences are almost entirely due to environmental extremes, not isolation," Dr Fraser says.

The new research also shows Antarctica's ecosystems could be more vulnerable to global warming than previously suspected, she says.

"Parts of Antarctica are among the fastest warming places on Earth. If plants and animals get to Antarctica fairly frequently by floating across the ocean, they will be able to establish themselves as soon as the local environment becomes hospitable enough."

The study builds on a previous Marsden-funded project led by Professor Waters together with Dr Fraser. The basic knowledge generated by the original Marsden study made this new study possible.
-end-
For further information, contact

Professor Jon Waters
Department of Zoology
Tel 03 479 5847
Mob 027 244 3018
Email jonathan.waters@otago.ac.nz

Liane Topham-Kindley
Senior Communications Adviser
Tel 03 4790 9065
Mob 021 279 9065
Email liane.topham-kindley@otago.ac.nz

University of Otago

Related Antarctica Articles:

Antarctica: the final frontier for marine biological invasions?
A new study looking at the implications of increased shipping activity and the impact on Antarctic marine biodiversity is published this week in the journal Global Change Biology.
Human 'footprint' on Antarctica measured for first time
The full extent of the human 'footprint' on Antarctica has been revealed for the first time by new IMAS-led research which used satellite images to measure stations, huts, runways, waste sites and tourist camps at 158 locations.
Iguana-sized dinosaur cousin discovered in Antarctica
Scientists have discovered the fossils of an iguana-sized reptile, which they named 'Antarctic king,' that lived at the South Pole 250 million years ago (it used to be warmer).
Scientists drill to record depths in West Antarctica
A team of scientists and engineers has for the first time successfully drilled over two kilometres through the ice sheet in West Antarctica using hot water.
Is Antarctica becoming more like Greenland?
Antarctica is high and dry and mostly bitterly cold, and it's easy to think of its ice and snow as locked away in a freezer, protected from melt except around its low-lying coasts and floating ice shelves.
More Antarctica News and Antarctica Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Erasing The Stigma
Many of us either cope with mental illness or know someone who does. But we still have a hard time talking about it. This hour, TED speakers explore ways to push past — and even erase — the stigma. Guests include musician and comedian Jordan Raskopoulos, neuroscientist and psychiatrist Thomas Insel, psychiatrist Dixon Chibanda, anxiety and depression researcher Olivia Remes, and entrepreneur Sangu Delle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#537 Science Journalism, Hold the Hype
Everyone's seen a piece of science getting over-exaggerated in the media. Most people would be quick to blame journalists and big media for getting in wrong. In many cases, you'd be right. But there's other sources of hype in science journalism. and one of them can be found in the humble, and little-known press release. We're talking with Chris Chambers about doing science about science journalism, and where the hype creeps in. Related links: The association between exaggeration in health related science news and academic press releases: retrospective observational study Claims of causality in health news: a randomised trial This...