Explore our research projects and programs

Our research Program encompasses 6 interrelated themes focusing on man-made threats facing Polar biota and ecosystems.

Explore our research themes below.

Input Pathways of persistent organic pollutants to AntarCTica (ImPACT)

The primary input pathway for Persistent Organic Pollutants to the South Polar Region is long range atmospheric transport, however, increasingly alternate pathways such as ocean currents, migratory biota and in-situ chemical usage must be considered.

Quantification of chemical levels and profiles in standardised media over time will facilitate evaluation of temporal contamination trends and hereby the effectiveness of the aims of the Stockholm Convention in reducing or eliminating these chemicals from the environment.

ImPACT is the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) Action Group led by Susan Bengtson Nash. SOPOPP's research activity in support of the goals of ImPACT include continuous monitoring of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in the atmosphere of the Australian Antarctic Territory between 2009 and 2015. This research theme has also been the focus of SOPOPP PhD students, Seanan Wild and Andreas Zimbelli. Funding for the theme has been provided by the Department of the Environment with logistical support provided under various Australian Antarctic Science grants

Biogeochemical Cycling of Persistent Organic Pollutants in Polar Regions

Ice and snow form major components of the Polar landscape and represent a unique array of physical processes governing the transport and fate of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). Similarly, Polar biota have evolved ecologies dictated by the annual extremes in solar irradiance which lend further complexity to the biogeochemical cycles of POPs in high latitude environments.

Chemicals distribute between different environmental phases such as ice, water and phytoplankton, according to their physico-chemical properties and ambient conditions. This research theme conducts strategic measurement to better understand the partitioning of POPs in these systems, their key drivers, as well as their likely behaviour under changing climatic conditions.

This theme has been supported by ARC Discovery Project (DP140100018) with logistical support provided by a number of Australian Antarctic Science Grants. The theme has supported the PhD research of Marie Bigot and Andreas Zimbelli and has entailed close collaboration with Aarhus University , Environment Canada and the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) at the University of Tasmania.

Investigating the Risk of Humpback Whale Vessel-Strike in Moreton Bay

Vessel strike is one of the fastest growing direct threats posed to whales worldwide. The threat has escalated in line with rapid growth of the global maritime industry, combined with advances in ship engineering which have facilitated greater vessel speeds. Mortalities in cetacean species with long gestation periods and low fecundity are problematic.

Australia’s incidence of vessel strike involving large whales constitutes ~7% of reported incidences worldwide. In line with the International Whaling Commission (IWC) efforts, Australia’s Federal Government recently published the National Strategy for Mitigating Vessel Strike of Marine Mega-fauna.  The Strategy flags Moreton Bay as an area ‘of concern’ owing to the co-occurrence of a high level of commercial shipping activity, and high cetacean biodiversity, including seasonally high whale numbers.

Since 2017, SOPOPP have worked in partnership with The Port of Brisbane Pty. Ltd. to quantify inter-annual distribution and abundance of humpback whales utilising Moreton Bay. Distribution and abundance surveys represent Phase I of a longer term Risk Evaluation and Mitigation effort being conducted between SOPOPP, The Port of Brisbane, The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Murdoch University and Moreton Bay Partners.

This project forms the PhD research of SOPOPP candidate, Raphael Mayaud.

Plastic in the Southern Ocean

The escalating environmental threat of plastic pollution is expected to impact Antarctica via oceanic pathways over coming decades as transport timescales are reached. Further, the contribution of local human activities to the Antarctic plastic pollution problem have yet to be quantified.

Research under this Program component aims to investigate: the current distribution of microplastic pollution within the Southern Ocean; Quantify uptake kinetics in keystone species, as well as; develop biomarkers of plastic ingestion in Antarctic megafauna.

This theme supported the PhD research of SOPOPP alumni, Amanda Dawson, which resulted in a Nature Communications publication.

SOPOPP are proud Partner Investigators of the Antarctic Circumnativation Expedition project “Baseline Assessment of the Impact of Microplastic Pollution on the Southern Ocean Food Web”.

Polar Ecotoxicology

The extreme life-history adaptations of Polar biota may lead to an elevated sensitivity to the toxicological effects of chemicals. Measuring the toxicological exposure and effect of known and emerging Chemicals of Antarctic Concern (CACs) is an integral component of our work within SOPOPP. From field surveys of chemical levels and profiles at the base of the Antarctic food web, and consumers i.e. sea-bird and whale populations; to controlled, laboratory, dose-response assessments using Antarctic krill-based bioassays and humpback whale cell lines developed within our team.

This research theme has been supported by Australian Research Council Discovery Project (DP0666891) and is conducted in close collaboration with research partners at the Australian Antarctic Division, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology, the University of Queensland and internal collaborators at Griffith University. The work contributes to a very small body of data regarding the toxicological sensitivity of Antarctic biota and facilitates species-specific risk assessment and regulatory decision making.

This theme supported the PhD research of SOPOPP alumni Anita Poulsen, as well as active SOPOPP students, Valeria Casa and Hafiz All Hosen.

The Humpback Whale Sentinel Program (HWSP)

The Humpback Whale Sentinel Program (HWSP) is the primary surveillance action of SOPOPP. It is a long-term, circum-Polar biomonitoring program for surveillance of the Antarctic sea-ice ecosystem. It is designed to complement existing sentinel programs under the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCMLR) Ecosystem Monitoring Program (CEMP), and produce open source data for Antarctic and cetacean research communities. It is supported by the Southern Ocean Research Partnership (SORP), endorsed by the Southern Ocean Observing System (SOOS), and is the culmination of 13 years of biomarker and ecological tracer research and development within SOPOPP.

The HWSP targets the sentinel parameters of adiposity, diet and fecundity in 5 distinct breeding stocks of southern hemisphere humpback whales on an annual basis on their respective breeding grounds. The HWSP relies on strong international partnerships with our Breeding Stock Representatives at Projeto Baleia Jubarte, Brazil; Institute for Research and development, New Caledonia; Cetacean Research Centre WA and the Macauticos Foundation, Colombia.

Research in support of the HWSP has been conducted by SOPOPP alumni Pascale Eisenmann and Juliana Castrillon, and is the focus of current SOPOPP PhD student, Jasmin Gross.

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