RecorDRecording the baseline before the change: First steps towards an integrated chemical and biological pollution and effects assessment off Dronning Maud Land

Funding by the German Research community SPP 1158

Funding period 01/2023- 12/2026

Project leader

Prof. Dr. habil. Gesine Witt


MSc Moritz Kielmann
MSc Sarah Zwicker

Project partner

Matthias Brenner Alfred Wegener Institute

Project description

As global surface temperatures rise, an increasing number of semi-volatile pollutants emitted at lower latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere will evaporate and undergo prolonged long-range atmospheric transport. In this way, more persistent organic pollutants (POPs) will be deposited in the southern cold trap – Antarctica. At the same time, warming of the ocean will accelerate the re-release of pollutants trapped in the ice into the Southern Ocean. Consequently, an increase in bioavailable anthropogenic pollution is a foreseeable consequence for Antarctica and its inhabitants. However, in Dronning Maud Land, this increase in pollution and its biological impacts will go largely unnoticed due to the lack of holistic baseline studies on pollution levels and their consequences. Therefore, in this project we will conduct an integrated contaminant and risk assessment for Dronning Maud Land and its biota based on a three-month sampling campaign in Atka Bay sea ice. Using innovative passive sampling techniques, we will investigate the current status of POP pollution in a variety of environmental samples ranging from sea ice to tissues of (deceased) penguins. From the beginning of the melt season into the summer, we will track the release of contaminants from the ice into seawater and their presumed uptake into ice algae and further into the krill that feed on them. By determining contaminant levels in the body, we will assess contaminant bioaccumulation and further biomagnification in key Antarctic species. In addition, by evaluating a repeated sampling, we will discover something about the seasonality of POP pollution.

As an important complement to chemical analysis, we will complement screening for POPs with biological impact assessment. To do this, we will investigate biomarker response in krill using cellular and subcellular biomarkers of detoxification, oxidative stress, and regeneration. Again, the seasonal, steady-state sampling approach will improve our knowledge of the variability in these physiological and potentially pathological responses. This will facilitate interpretation of future sampling campaigns and prediction of biomarker behavior. By involving other research stations in the development of this approach, we aim to expand the current frontiers of contaminant research and help ensure that comprehensive and coordinated contaminant and risk assessment studies are conducted in Antarctica in the future.