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Pollution Reached the South Pole Even Before Explorers

Jul 29, 2014 12:45 PM EDT

Humanity's influence on the world reached the South Pole even before the first explorers first set foot on the region's untouched ground, according to a recent study.

The study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, details how researchers examined ice core evidence that dates as far back as 1600. What they discovered was startling.

Back in 1911, when Norwegian Roald Amundsen and Englishman Robert Falcon Scott were racing one another across Antarctica to be the first man to reach the South Pole, they were trudging through snow and ice that had already been contaminated by industry.

"Our new record shows the dramatic impact of industrial activities such as smelting, mining and fossil fuel burning on even the most remote parts of the world," study leader Joe McConnell of the Desert Research Institute (DRI) explained in a statement.

"It is very clear that industrial lead contamination was pervasive throughout Antarctica by the late 19th century, more than two decades before the first explorers made it to the South Pole," he added.

The study analyzed 16 ice cores in all, collected as part of projects through the National Science Foundation, the British Antarctic Survey, the Australian Antarctic Division and the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany.

According to the study, lead pollution levels in the South Pole, even in the 19th century, were "nearly as high as any time ever since" - even as cleaner industrial processes were developed. Of course, the lower pollution output of these technologies was easily made up for as industries expanded throughout the world, especially after they made their way into developing countries like China.

Not only does this study provide an alarming look at the consequences of past technological progress, the researchers argue that it shows us how far from perfect industry is even today.

"Lead is a toxic heavy metal with strong potential to harm ecosystems," said co-author Paul Vallelong.

"Our measurements indicate that approximately 660 tons [1.5 million pounds] of industrial lead have been deposited on the snow-covered surface of Antarctica during the past 130 years," McConnell added. "While recent contamination levels are lower, clearly detectable industrial contamination of the Antarctic continent persists today, so we still have a ways to go."

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