Because of its geographical position and unique characteristics, Antarctica is an outstanding natural laboratory, providing the international scientific community with the opportunity to obtain valuable information in many research fields, including biology, chemistry, geology, physics, cosmology, oceanography and medicine.
Italy has been present in Antarctica since 1985 with the Italian Antarctic Research Program (PNRA), establishing two research stations (Mario Zucchelli Station at Terra Nova Bay and Concordia Station– jointly with France – on the East Antarctic plateau), organizing yearly expeditions and implementing research projects in all the fields mentioned above, some of them in co-operation with international partners (e.g. EPICA).
In the environmental science, Antarctica offers the unique possibility to investigate the past and present of our planet and to make predictions for the future. In fact, the ice sheet contains the record of the atmospheric composition over the last hundreds of thousands of years, thus providing a deep insight into the past climate. Moreover, due to the distance from the main sources of pollution and the negligible local anthropic disturbance, Antarctica is a privileged observatory to study the natural biogeochemical cycles and to assess the present status and future trends of the global pollution. Finally, the pristine nature of the Antarctic region provides baseline values for many contaminants, an important information for the biomonitoring programs around the world.
Classical and emerging contaminants can be found in Antarctica as the result of long-range transport from mid-latitudes, mainly from South America and Australia. These chemicals include heavy metals of both natural and anthropogenic origin (e.g. Pb, Hg) and organic pollutants (e.g. PCB, PAH). The primary pathway of delivery of contaminants to Antarctica is via the atmosphere and the magnitude of chemical contamination is therefore dependent on the chemical usage and the general atmospheric circulation, both susceptible to changes. Beside the transport of contaminants from distant sources, local contamination can also occur, in relation with research station activities, tourism or occasional incidents. Marine organisms cause an accumulation and biomagnification of inorganic and organic pollutants up to concentrations that may produce adverse health effects. However, so far, the levels of most contaminants in Antarctic organisms are lower than those in similar species from other remote regions. On the other hand, a change in the global budget of persistent anthropogenic contaminants is occurring and new classes of chemicals, such as flame retardants and microplastics, can affect the Antarctic environment. In addition, climate change and global warming could enhance the transport and accumulation of persistent contaminants in Antarctica. Therefore, the monitoring of chemical contamination in Antarctica is of paramount importance for the protection of the global environment.
In the context of PNRA, several projects on chemical contamination in Antarctica have been accomplished, since the first expeditions. First studies were aimed at establishing the levels of contaminants in the different environmental compartments (atmosphere, cryosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere), as well as at developing suitable analytical methods for their quantification. Later, the research involved the study of the biogeochemical cycles of contaminants, including long-range transport and in-situ transformation processes. Finally, the interest was enlarged to other chemical species, such as micronutrients (e.g. Fe), environmental markers (e.g. Pb and Sr isotopic ratios) and emerging pollutants (e.g. personal care products, nanoparticles and microplastics). Representative studies are illustrated here.