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Paleolimnological assessment of the impacts of anthropogenic activities on Fildes Peninsula, South Shetland Islands, Antarctica

Since the discovery of Antarctica in the early 19th Century, the number of humans arriving to the continent has progressively increased. From the early explorers to hunters and whalers, scientists, and later tourists, all human visitors have left evidence on the Antarctic landscapes on their passage. The increasing human footprint has begun to strain sensitive polar ecosystems, and there is growing concern about the threats posed to the continent’s natural systems, including pollution, the modification of animal behaviour and the introduction of non-indigenous species.

The Fildes Peninsula (King George Island, South Shetland Islands) has been the site of year-round human presence since the construction of Bellingshausen Station in 1968. There are now six permanent bases on the peninsula, implying one of the densest concentrations of humans in Antarctica, with a permanent population of ~125 and a summer peak of ~300 people. Substantial infrastructure has been installed to support these bases, including an airport, roads, pipelines, and diesel generators. The construction and operation of these facilities has caused considerable disturbance to the Antarctic environment, although the precise nature of the effects on most ecosystems is still poorly understood.

Lakes are a pervasive feature of Fildes Peninsula landscapes, with a large number in close proximity to the permanent stations including those used as sources of potable water. Although it is logical that these water bodies have been affected in some way by the presence of the bases. Apart from several studies determining baseline limnological characteristics very little research has been done to investigate their chemical processes and biological communities. This project proposes to study a series of lakes of the Fildes Peninsula using a combined paleolimnological-limnological approach in order to assess the degree to which they have been impacted by anthropogenic activities during the past century. Therefore, the project aims the analysis of sediment cores extracted from seven lakes of Fildes Peninsula, five of which have been used or are currently used as source of drinking water and two, which have never been.

Sediment cores will be taken to determine the conditions in these lakes prior to human presence on the Fildes Peninsula, and to develop records of how anthropogenic pollutants have affected the lake since the bases were established. Diatoms will be used as a biological indicator to determine how aquatic communities have changed over time and if they have been affected by local human activities.

The results of this study will be an important step in the environmental monitoring of the impacts of Fildes Peninsula bases on the environment. The insights gained will serve to better understand how the changing intensity of human activities has affected the local landscape, and therefore to predict how the region’s ecosystems may respond to future changes. As several of the lakes in this study are used as sources of drinking water, understanding their responses over time to anthropogenic and natural processes will also serve to assess their long-term sustainability as potable water supplies for Antarctic bases.