Open Access

Distribution and fate of aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons in Antarctic fauna and environment

  • H. M. Platt1, 2 and
  • P. R. Mackie3
Helgoländer Meeresuntersuchungen33:BF02414749


With the depletion of oil resources in more accessible areas, those of remote regions are being considered or indeed are now being exploited. In many of these regions, especially the polar ones, little is known of the effects such exploitation will have on the environment. But it is known that the ecosystems are often subject to great stress by natural climatic conditions and additional burdens imposed by man may have catastrophic environmental effects. South Georgia, a sub-Antarctic island, has a history of industrial activity mainly concerned with whaling operations that peaked around 1925–1935 but has since declined to virtually nothing. Studies of the ecology of the area provided a unique opportunity to assess the long-term effects that such activities had on the ecosystem. Off the whaling stations a considerable amount of waste material, including fuel oil, was released into the bays and inevitably some of this material was deposited in the sediments. Chemical evidence in the form of both paraffinic and aromatic hydrocarbons still persists in the sediments. The implications of this persistence in relation to the possible influence of the low temperature conditions are discussed. The superficial sediments, marine biota and terrestrial plants, which since 1965 have returned virtually to a pristine state, contain hydrocarbons essentially similar to unpolluted areas around the coast of Britain. Relatively high levels of carcinogenic/mutagenic polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons in surface sediments suggests a world-wide background of abiogenic hydrocarbons probably disseminated by airborne transport. This appears to indicate that contamination reaches even remote parts of the world in relatively undiminished quantities.