In 1911, the Briton Robert Falcon Scott and the Norwegian Roald Amundsen raced to the South Pole. Amundsen’s expedition made it in December, Scott’s ill-fated party – who all perished on the return journey – got there 33 days later. But both were beaten by manmade pollutants.
That is the finding of a new study published on Monday, more than 100 years after the first man set foot on the Earth’s most southerly point.
Studying data from ice cores collected from across Antarctica, scientists from around the world have found that lead pollution reached the South Pole at least 20 years before Amundsen.
The samples show that the concentrations of lead in Antarctic ice increased six-fold in the late 1880s – the same time that mining and smelting began in southern Australia, thousands of miles away.
After studying the isotopic signature of the lead pollutants, the team is confident that this single source of emissions is responsible for the contamination of the Antarctic continent.
Significantly, the study also shows that pollutants from Australia still affect Antarctica.
“Our measurements indicate that about 660 tonnes of industrial lead have reached the snow-covered surface of Antarctica during the past 130 years, and clearly detectable pollution continues to accumulate today,” said study lead author Joe McConnell, of Nevada’s Desert Research Institute.
The data reveals that lead concentrations peaked in 1990, and remained high until the great depression. After the end of the second world war, concentrations again rose rapidly and remained high until 1990.
As efforts to curb the use of lead have kicked in, concentrations have fallen, but still remain around four times higher than pre-1880s levels.
“Our new record shows the dramatic impact of industrial activities such as smelting, mining and fossil fuel burning on even the most remote parts of the world,” McConnell said.
Photo: Eli Duke via Flickr