Interview with Susan Bengtson Nash, Program Director of the Southern Ocean Persistent Organic Pollutants Program at Griffith University, Australia

By Hannah Schartmann.

A warm welcome and thank you very much for the interview. Can you tell me a bit more about you? What is your background?

I am a polar scientist and I am passionate about Planetary Health. I lead the Southern Ocean Persistent Organic Pollutants Program (SOPOPP). The Program focuses on investigating how chemicals reach Antarctica, how they behave once incorporated into a land- and sea-scape of ice and snow, and of course what impact they are having on local biota. SOPOPP also coordinates the Humpback Whale Sentinel Program for long-term surveillance of the Antarctic sea-ice ecosystem which generates open access data for the policy and research community.

You are currently studying the biogeochemical cycling of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) in polar regions at Griffith University in Australia. What are POPs and why is it important to study POPs in high latitude environments?

Biogeochemical cycling of chemicals is one of the core research arms of SOPOPP. Almost everything we know about chemical behavior (e.g. half-lives and partitioning characteristics), has been derived under temperate conditions. Once we move into a region that is dominated by ice and snow, it is important to understand the unique biological and physical interactions, and how these govern chemical movement and fate.

POPs are a unique group of chemicals known to share 4 characteristics. They are mobile, persistent, toxic and accumulate in biota. Most POPs achieve their mobility through transport via the atmosphere. Because they are also persistent, they can be carried 1000s of km from their source point with a tendency to migrate towards the poles of the Earth. High latitude environments are therefore of special interest for POP research.

Do you already have first results of your research study?

Yes, we conducted our first biogeochemical cycling-focused Antarctic sampling campaigns between 2014 and 2016, and our findings from these campaigns have been published (below). A key findings from our work was that the Southern Ocean still represents a sink for these chemicals and does not release them the way seas in the Arctic have been found to do in response to warming temperatures.

Do you already “see” the effects of the climate change in the polar regions? What have been changed due to the climate crisis?

Polar regions are experiencing the earliest and most severe impacts of climate change. These have been profound in Antarctica in recent years. For example, we all recall the footage across news channels of the Larsen C ice-shelf breaking away in 2017. 2017 also had the lowest sea-ice on record (27% below average), and just last season we started to observe ‘heatwaves’ in Antarctica with temperatures reaching 9oC. Change is happening quickly and places almost everything we thought we knew about Antarctica in question.

Rising sea levels, higher temperatures, endangered species – it is difficult to find positive news. How do you stay motivated with so many negative headlines?

It is easy to stay motivated, in fact my purpose simply becomes more urgent. The challenge for the scientific community, however, is to engage policy and the public with action-based dialogue so that it’s clear the responsibility is a shared one and we must all work together to make a difference.

On which achievement are you in particular proud of?

I feel really proud when I look at the young scientists I have trained who are doing amazing things.

Through SOPOPP we have also discovered a number of ‘firsts’. For example, we discovered that Antarctic krill could crush microplastic to form nanoplastic – the first time that any organism had been observed to do so. But foundations really start to move when our science contributes to a bigger picture and a bigger purpose. That is why I am passionate about collaboration and open access data and am particularly proud of the role that SOPOPP and The Humpback Whale Sentinel Program play in ocean observing systems, scientific Action Groups and coordinated partnerships such as the Southern Ocean Research Partnership. 

Do you have any message to the public regarding the conservation of the ocean?

Conservation of the ocean, of the planet, is a story of conserving human life as much as it is about the environment. Our health depends on a healthy environment and the responsibility for nature protection lies with each one of us. How we spend, where we invest, the way we vote, the way our household consumes, generates and recycles waste. We used to know this intrinsically and as a species we somehow just need to recall it.

References

  1. Bigot, M.; Muir, D.; Hawker, D.; Cropp, R.; Dachs, J.; Bengtson Nash, S. M., Air-seawater exchange of organochlorine pesticides in the Southern Ocean between Australia and Antarctica. Environmental Science and Technology 2016, 50, 8001-8009.
  2. Bigot, M.; Curran, M. A. J.; Muir, D.; Hawker, D.; Cropp, R.; Teixeira, C.; Bengtson Nash, S. M., Organochlorine pesticides in an archived firn core from Law Dome, East Antarctica. Cryosphere 2016, 10, 2533–2539.
  3. Bigot, M.; Hawker, D.; Cropp, R.; Muir, D.; Jensen, B.; Bossi, R.; Bengtson Nash, S., Spring melt and the redistribution of organochlorine pesticides in the sea-ice environment: A comparative study between Arctic and Antarctic regions. Environmental Science and Technology 2017, 51, 8944-8952.

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