Through molecular techniques, a multidisciplinary team of researchers evaluates contaminants and their effects on the white continent.
Andrea Navarro, IDEAL Center. Pesticides are pollutants that easily volatilize in warm areas. They are used in various industries and travel thousands of kilometers through the atmosphere to cold places such as the planet’s polar zones. Although some have already been banned, their presence can persist for years in the environment.
Within the framework of the Antarctic Scientific Expedition (ECA) 56, organized by the Chilean Antarctic Institute (INACh), a team of experts began a study to quantify pesticides in the marine ecosystems of the white continent, considered one of the most pristine areas on the planet. These are the researchers from the Center for Dynamic Research in High Latitude Marine Ecosystems (IDEAL) of the Austral University of Chile (UACh), Dr. Pirjo Huovinen and Dr. Iván Gómez, and the academic from the University of Milano-Bicocca (Italy), Dr. Andrea Franzetti.
After extracting snow, water and soil samples near the Escudero Base (Antarctic Peninsula,) the scientists will quantify the levels of pesticides and other contaminants in them. In addition, they will carry out molecular analyzes to characterize the microbiological community that develops in the presence of these contaminants.
“All the processes that occur in the snow, in the waters of the lakes and in the soil, have an impact on the marine area. As glaciers melt, they release the pollutants they have stored for years into the environment,” explains Dr. Gómez, “what is trapped in the ice, finally settles in the oceans. For this reason and with the purpose of filling spaces of knowledge that are still incomplete, it is necessary to have an integral view”.
The planet’s poles act as true “cold traps”: They trap volatile particles found in the atmosphere. In turn, in general, ice masses act as reservoirs of pollutants. These substances along with other impurities, such as “black carbon”, decrease the albedo of ice and snow fields, accelerating their melting. In this way, when the ice melts, the marine invertebrates of the coastal zone come into contact with all those tailings from the glaciers.
Dr. Franzetti has been studying the colonization processes of microorganisms in glacial environments for more than ten years and their impact on the degradation of pollutants. Thanks to this, he has been able to obtain samples from the Alps, the Arctic and, for the first time, from Antarctica. With them he will make a comparison of the three places.
“We assess the negative effects of pollution in the polar zones, such as how they can affect ecosystems and change trophic relationships,” says Dr. Franzetti. “However, we also investigate the positive aspects because we know that microorganisms are capable of degrading pollutants such as hydrocarbons, pesticides and organic matter. Therefore, its function is crucial,” he explains.