Antarctica, the southernmost continent on Earth, is a vast, frigid land covered in ice and snow. With no permanent human inhabitants, one might assume this pristine landscape remains untouched by human waste. However, each year thousands of scientists, researchers, and tourists visit Antarctica, leaving behind traces of their presence. This raises an intriguing question: How much of Antarctica is pee?
How many people visit Antarctica each year?
To estimate how much pee may be left behind in Antarctica, we first need to know how many visitors travel there each year. Antarctica sees a range of between 1,000 to 5,000 visitors each year across its various research stations and tourist sites. The majority are scientists and personnel who staff the over 75 research stations operating in Antarctica. Tourism makes up the remaining visitors, with approximately 45,000 to 65,000 tourist landings each year.
The following table summarizes the approximate visitor numbers to Antarctica each year:
|Visitor Type||Estimated Visitors Per Year|
|Research personnel||1,000 – 5,000|
|Tourists||45,000 – 65,000|
|Total||46,000 – 70,000|
So in total, Antarctica hosts between 46,000 to 70,000 visitors per year.
How much pee does each person produce?
Now that we know how many people visit Antarctica, the next key factor is determining how much pee each person can produce. According to studies, the average person pees around 6-7 times per day and excretes between 1.2 to 1.7 liters of urine each day. This can vary based on factors like age, health, hydration levels, and more. To keep the estimate simple, let’s assume each visitor to Antarctica pees 1.5 liters per day.
Estimating the amount of pee in Antarctica
Using the visitor estimates and the average pee production, we can now calculate a rough estimate for how much pee may be left behind in Antarctica each year:
- Annual visitors: 46,000 – 70,000
- Daily pee per person: 1.5 liters
- If each visitor pees 1.5 liters per day…
- 46,000 visitors x 1.5 liters = 69,000 liters of pee per day
- 70,000 visitors x 1.5 liters = 105,000 liters of pee per day
Factoring in that visitors stay an average of 1 to 2 weeks, this results in:
- 69,000 – 105,000 liters of pee per day
- Multiplied by 14 days (average trip duration)
- Equals 966,000 – 1,470,000 liters of pee per year left behind in Antarctica
That’s nearly 1 million to 1.5 million liters of human urine deposited on the continent each year! Of course, this is just a coarse estimate, but it gives a sense of the volume of pee that may accumulate in Antarctica from yearly visitors.
Where does all that pee end up?
Now that we’ve estimated the yearly amount of human pee in Antarctica, an important question is what happens to it? Unfortunately, much of it likely remains on the landscape and in the waters surrounding Antarctica. Here is a breakdown of where pee deposited by visitors may end up:
On the ground
In inland and coastal areas of Antarctica, there is limited plumbing and sanitation infrastructure. Some research stations have restroom facilities and waste treatment, but many visitors end up peeing right onto the snow, ice, rocks, or ground. Despite the cold temperatures, bacteria and nutrients in urine can contaminate Antarctic soils and aquatic systems.
In the ocean
Boats and ships traveling in Antarctica’s seas also release wastewater and sewage, including urine, directly into the Southern Ocean. In fact, a 2020 study estimated over 80% of Antarctic sewage is released into the ocean untreated. This contributes to localized pollution and affects marine ecosystems.
In lakes and streams
During the Antarctic summer, a portion of the continent’s ice melts to reveal rocky terrain and flowing meltwater streams and lakes. Some visitors may urinate directly into these waters, adding nutrients and potentially impacting microbial communities.
While some pee breaks down over time in Antarctica’s harsh climate, the accumulation of urine from so many visitors is an environmental concern and contributes to pollution in what is supposed to be a pristine wilderness.
Can pee affect Antarctica’s environment?
Now that we know roughly how much pee may be left behind and where it goes, what impact could 1+ million liters of human urine have on the continent each year? Here are some potential environmental effects:
Urine contains high levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. When released into Antarctic soils, streams, lakes, and oceans, these nutrients from pee can cause fertilization and algae blooms, disrupting nutrient balances in fragile polar ecosystems.
Urine can contain traces of medications, hormones, chemicals from waste products, and pathogens if the person is ill. These contaminants may be absorbed by Antarctic soils and aquatic life when pee is released untreated into the environment.
Altering microbial ecology
Nutrients in urine deposited on Antarctic soils can allow certain cold-tolerant bacteria and microscopic life to thrive beyond normal levels. This can change soil ecology and affect larger ecosystems.
While pee does naturally break down over time in the environment, the large quantities generated by Antarctic tourists and researchers may have measurable impacts, especially near high-traffic areas. This illustrates the importance of proper human waste management in Antarctica’s vulnerable setting.
Antarctica pee solutions
To reduce the environmental impact of human urine in Antarctica, proper pee etiquette and waste solutions are needed. Here are some ways pee pollution could be mitigated in Antarctica:
“Pack it in, pack it out”
Visitors should collect urine in portable containers for proper disposal off the continent, just as they do with solid waste. Carrying pee bottles is an extra step, but prevents direct contamination of Antarctic soils and water.
Improved waste treatment
Updating coastal stations and ships with advanced wastewater treatment facilities that fully break down sewage and urine before release could reduce ocean pollution.
Urine diversion toilets
Toilets that divert urine to storage tanks for periodic removal could allow for waste decomposition offsite rather than direct release into the environment.
Responsible pee practices
Tour operators and research groups should educate visitors on responsible peeing habits, like avoiding lakes, streams, and concentrated animal habitats. Following marked paths helps concentrate any urine left behind for easier cleanup.
With improvements in human waste management, Antarctica’s pristine environment can better sustain limited human activity while minimizing unnecessary pee pollution.
Our back-of-the-envelope calculations estimate that Antarctica accumulates between 1 and 1.5 million liters of human urine each year from visiting scientists, tourists, and personnel. Much of this pee is deposited untreated into soils, lakes, ocean waters, and other environments where it can contribute to localized nutrient pollution and contamination. While urine does break down naturally over time, improving waste management practices through pee bottles, diversion toilets, designated bathroom areas, and education could help preserve Antarctica’s ecosystems. With some changes to habits and infrastructure, we can keep this southernmost frontier clean for future generations to explore and study.