Pollution and environmental exploitation in near space, the deep ocean, and antarctica

31 March 2021


Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

How are human interactions with near space, the deep ocean, and Antarctica impacting these remote environments? Are our efforts to explore and exploit these environments contributing to pollution and environmental degradation? If so, how can we manage these challenges and implement policies to protect and effectively manage the care of these unique environments?

In the second episode of CSaP’s podcast miniseries exploring science and policy for space, deep ocean environments, and Antarctica, host Dr Rob Doubleday spoke with expert guests about the risks and policy questions posed by ways in which human interactions with and exploit these environments. We explored the risks and questions involved in deep sea mining, how scientists are managing the delicate balance between studying and protecting fragile environments, and the growing problem of space debris. Throughout the episode, Dr Doubleday was joined by political geographer Dr John Childs from the University of Lancaster, the British Antarctic Survey's Environmental Research and Monitoring Manager Dr Kevin Hughes, technology governance expert Dr Nikita Chiu, and CSaP Policy Intern Anthony Lindley.

You can listen to the episode here:

Deep Sea Mining:

Throughout most of history, argued Dr John Childs, oceans have been marginalized from political thought – viewed as something to be passed over, rather than as a space with political consequences and significance. More recently however, the emergence of new technologies and profit driven approaches such as the emergent narrative of the blue economy have changed our understanding of deep-sea environments. At the same time, the Blue Planet effect has increased public consciousness of some aspects of this environment. It is in this context that companies and countries are now exploring the feasibility of deep-sea resource extraction. There are roughly 30 exploration contracts which have been issued by the International Seabed Authority for mineral exploration outside of national exclusive economic zones. As we shape the future of this prospective industry, experiences thus far suggest there are several factors to be considered, including human cultural considerations, the need to protect our natural heritage for future generations, investor reactions to projects which have potentially high environmental consequences, disruptions to ecosystems, underwater sound pollution, complex supply chains involving mineral processing on land, the drive for minerals needed for expanding green energy infrastructure, and questions around how to respect the rights of indigenous communities. Ultimately, Dr Childs highlighted that there are questions around who should benefit from deep-sea mining, and who should bear its costs; and how to manage and regulate this industry in a way which is fair and respects a range of belief systems.

Exploring and Protecting Antarctica:

99.7% of Antarctica is covered in snow and ice, while a remaining 3% - mostly near the coast – is ice-free. These ice-free areas are home to the majority of Antarctic research stations and have borne the brunt of the impact of direct human activities in the region since the mid-20th century. Prior to that period, human impacts in Antarctica were focused on the marine environment, through industries such as whaling and sealing. Today, however, research stations, the fishing industry, and the expanding tourism industry in the Antarctic has seen the introduction of non-native species, the potential for the introduction of new pathogens to the region, the trampling of vegetation, pollution from fossil fuel combustion, the release of sewage into the marine environment, and the disturbance of wildlife in fragile systems. Human activities elsewhere have also impacted the Antarctic – through climate change’s impact upon Antarctic ice shelves, the introduction of plastics and other pollutants into the region through ocean currents.

The Antarctic’s ecosystems are by their very nature more fragile than many other ecosystems elsewhere due to the stress from living in an extreme environment, with Dr Hughes noting that something as simple as a researcher walking into a fragile environment with mud from elsewhere on their boots could change a fragile fungi and bacteria ecosystem forever. Ultimately, scientists must manage the tensions between undertaking research which could help us understand the environment, while trying to minimize the risk of damaging it in the process. In doing so, Dr Hughes suggests that we need to be sensitive to the fact that Antarctica is a continent devoted to scientific investigation, while ensuring we think carefully about how and where we undertake that work in the region.

Space Debris:

Many of our socio-economic activities are reliant upon satellite infrastructure, including weather forecasting, television broadcasting, navigation, and geolocation. This space is being increasingly commercialized as more private actors are coming into play, and as we begin to introduce mega satellite constellations. Increased commercialization offers the opportunity to derive economic benefits from a cheaper sector, however, Dr Chiu emphasizes that we need to make sure whatever we launch will be tracked and managed sustainably. We need to ensure that the space activities we are pursuing in this generation does not negatively affect future generations’ use of space infrastructure. Here, two of the major areas of concern are frequency interference and space debris. Currently, we do not have an economically viable way of removing space debris, meaning we need to take steps to reduce the probability of collisions in space which would generate this debris. While maturing technology may help us manage this problem in future, much of this technology is still nascent and has an astronomical price tag. In the short term, Dr Chiu emphasizes that one of the most important aspects of managing this problem from a policy perspective is for international communication, and the reaching of a shared understanding surrounding responsible deorbit behavior.

CSaP: The Science & Policy Podcast’s six-part miniseries on Science & Policy for Space, Deep Oceans & Antarctica will be released throughout March and April 2021. This series is available across all major podcasting platforms, including Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, Podbean, ListenNotes, Acast, Player.FM, Podcast Addict, and Castbox. This series is hosted by Dr Rob Doubleday and is produced by Kate McNeil with the support of research assistants Alice Millington and Anthony Lindley.