In almost every sense of the word, the Palmer Archipelago in Antarctica is wild. Humpback whales, elephant seals, and the wandering albatross, a seabird with a wingspan as long as a male great white shark, all call this area home. Towering glaciers and blue-tinged icebergs dot the landscape, and sunsets last for hours.
This empty, untamed place also has a gift shop. Port Lockroy, a small wooden building, was constructed in 1944 as Britain’s first permanent Antarctic base, then abandoned in 1962. Twenty years later, two members of the British Antarctic Survey team visited the deserted station. Penguins were nesting right against the front door—it was “almost like a Narnia moment,” Alan Hemmings, now a professor at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, told us. Today, gentoo penguins still roost in the building’s outdoor rafters and peek curiously into the glass windows as tourists browse.
For most of the year, however, the building is uninhabited, like Antarctica itself—the coldest place on Earth (137-degrees-below-Fahrenheit cold), with wind speeds of up to 199 miles an hour. Only 4,000 people, mainly scientific researchers, live in Antarctica during the summer, and about 1,000 in the winter. Seasonal vacationers number in the tens of thousands. For comparison, more than 2 million people call the Sahara Desert home.
But as desolate as Antarctica might seem, humankind’s influence is now shaping the continent, so much so that large swaths of it no longer count as wilderness. Half-operational and deserted stations are scattered around the continent, some still inhabitable, others lost to extreme conditions, and a number left standing to solidify geopolitical claims to land, fishing rights, and minerals. These abandoned buildings, or “ghost” stations, are a physical manifestation of the passion for this harsh land—a drive to both understand and dominate it—that has ultimately begun to destroy it.
Littered across the continent are as many as 5,000 permanent structures—basic huts, lighthouses, churches, and even research stations with rock-climbing walls. In the recent past, before the pandemic, about half of the continent’s 76 active stations would close for the winter. Other stations have been abandoned altogether.
The Antarctic Treaty that governs the continent includes environmental protections (known as the Madrid Protocol), which regulate “abandoned” work areas. But no one knows exactly how many exist—at least, we could not find a full list and, while trying to map the human footprint in Antarctica, Shaun Brooks, a research associate at the University of Tasmania, couldn’t either. The buildings he could locate, however, take up a disproportionate amount of space in coastal areas, which are more practical to access and filled with flora and fauna ripe for research. Less than 1 percent of Antarctica is ice-free, and as Brooks and his colleagues reported in a 2019 study in Nature Sustainability, 81 percent of all buildings lie within these “islands.” Three countries alone—the United States, Russia, and Australia—are responsible for more than half of the area that has been disturbed on the continent. “It could be argued that we’re kind of getting to carrying capacity,” Kevin Hughes, a vice chair of the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP), told us.
In theory, the Madrid Protocol prohibits any superfluous structures from remaining on the continent and requires that they be cleaned up by whoever used or left them. But cleanups are expensive and logistically difficult, and the obligation has loopholes: The rule exempts any structures built before the protocol took effect (two-thirds of all current stations), historic sites or monuments, and structures that would cause environmental damage if removed.
And countries have an additional reason to keep these structures standing: They have a strategic value, as “a sort of enduring presence-marker value for states,” Hemmings, the University of Canterbury professor, told us. After the fall of the Soviet Union, for example, a couple of U.S.S.R. stations sat empty for many years. “They were left there as a sort of reminder,” Hemmings said, that the country “was a major player and was present everywhere.” While other Russian stations are active, the stations that were closed and have since been reopened are still decaying, and often host only a skeleton crew.
One reason the status of a station is so hard to establish is that, with limited access and grueling conditions, it’s difficult to say whether a station is abandoned or simply rarely open. “Some of what appear to be abandoned or characterized by abandonment are summer-only stations—they may open for a few weeks, they may be used periodically, but they are listed in treaty documents and reports as being stations,” Polly Penhale, a senior environmental adviser at the National Science Foundation, told us. “So abandoned isn’t quite the right word.” Unused stations can still mark a country’s global strength: “They’re ‘ghost’ stations,” Klaus Dodds, a geopolitics professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, says, “partly on the grounds of cost, but partly on the grounds that parties don’t want to admit that actually nothing is going on.”
Global strength can be projected onto Antarctica in other ways: Bulgaria, for example, has little scientific presence there but over the past 10 years has named at least 1,000 out of 1,500 newly named locations in Antarctica—a cheap way to denote presence, however spectral, on the continent, Hemmings said. But, in a very practical sense, the difference between naming a place and putting an unoccupied building there is straightforward as the physical building can create a lasting environmental impact.
In the 1950s, for instance, the United States and New Zealand opened a joint base near large colonies of Adélie penguins in Cape Hallett. The station and roads, which ran through nesting areas, evicted more than 7,000 penguins, including 3,000 chicks. Or look at the Australian station Wilkes, first established by the United States. When it was abandoned in 1969, thousands of tons of hazardous waste were left frozen into the ground. Some years, big melts have released those chemicals, heavy metals, and hydrocarbons: Scientists have spotted oil sheens near penguin populations and in water where mollusks and other animals live. “It’s kind of a ticking time bomb for that to be released,” Brooks, the University of Tasmania researcher, said.
Because so many stations are unmonitored, or abandoned, these sorts of trouble spots dot the ice. Along the coast, multiple South African stations (SANAE I, II, and III) have been crushed and buried by snow and abandoned completely. A cleanup of the British station at Fossil Bluff, the CEP chair Hughes said, involved moving “all sorts of nasty things,” including medical waste and feces. Incidents like these have serious environmental consequences, Rachel Leihy, who studied the human impact on Antarctica as a doctoral student at Monash University’s School of Biological Sciences, wrote to us in an email. Buried structures, she added, will be “ejected into the sea as ice sheets move,” and “bring pollution risks.”
Antarctic land and the animals that live on it, like other largely untouched environments, are extremely sensitive. Activity that might seem inconsequential—leaving a footprint or watching penguins from feet away—can influence the area in ways that we can’t always see immediately. “Even transient human visits can have long-lasting impacts on sites and species,” Leihy said. “People can trample vegetation and soil communities that take decades to recover.” Researchers have also found that tourists or other visitors have inadvertently brought invasive species, such as annual bluegrass, to the continent. And Brooks has charted a direct correlation between the building footprint on Antarctica and disturbed land—which is to say that, in the battle for knowledge and power in Antarctica, the land itself is losing.
Last year, a group of scientists set out to determine how much of the continent still qualifies as “wilderness.” By some definitions, wilderness encompasses nearly the entire continent, but these researchers used a more restrictive definition—only areas that have never been touched by people. Using a data set of historical and contemporary human activity, they discovered that most of the continent had been disturbed in some way, by scientific research, infrastructure, or tourism. Only about a third still has large areas with no records of human presence, Leihy, one of the researchers, told us.
The word wilderness appears in the Antarctic Treaty and Protocol many times, but the treaty doesn’t specify how to protect these spaces. “The underlying problem has been the assumption that the Antarctic is so vast that we couldn’t possibly be doing damage,” Hemmings, at Canterbury, said. Any real accountability has to start with one of the treaty parties, Birgit Njåstad, the head chair of the Committee for Environmental Protection, told us. But ultimately, the offending country must choose to take action, and often the pressure to do so comes only after “naming and shaming—in a diplomatic way,” she added.
Right now, a tiny fraction of ice-free areas—about 1.5 percent—are formally designated as protected, and proposing a new protected area can be extremely slow and involves approval during a meeting that occurs just once a year. Projects can take up to a decade, if they’re not killed first, both Njåstad and fellow chair Hughes said. In 2011, one part of the Antarctic Treaty System announced that it would establish nine large marine protected areas in Antarctica. Only two such areas exist.
All over the world, human presence has transformed nature permanently; why should Antarctica be different? The hostile conditions on the continent might have limited our presence there, but the inroads made, even during the white expanse of Antarctic winter, have undoubtedly changed this place. As the continent has become more accessible, countries, even those that have pledged environmental protections, are taking advantage of its plentiful resources.
Indeed, a Chinese company is building the world’s largest krill-fishing boat for Antarctica, even though krill-fishing poses a major threat to the continent’s ecosystem. Both Russia and China have continued fighting for the Antarctic Treaty to relax prohibitions on resource extraction. Australia also recently announced plans to build a new airport that scientists say would increase humanity’s Antarctic footprint by 40 percent.
At Port Lockroy, a quick walk from the buzzing shack, with its working post office, employees swiping credit cards, and even a small museum, birds swoop for prey, penguins shield their young, and ice-covered mountains give way to the choppy sea. Nearby, a whale skeleton sits on a small island. Yet this skeleton didn’t come to the area naturally: The bones (possibly sourced from a myriad of deceased brethren) were carefully reassembled, and decades of snow, wind, and salt have cleaned each vertebra uniformly. Still, the whale was never meant to be there. In Antarctica, the signs of human influence can be subtle, but they are present if you know how to look.