Tourists trigger a polar crisis

Oil spills, shipwrecks, dumped waste, an ill-advised nuclear reactor—human interaction in Antarctica has a history of pushing the last great wilderness to the edge of ecological disaster.

Now, apart from climate change, which is breaking off great chunks of ice, mass tourism is the greatest threat the continent has ever faced.

For centuries, the pristine region of 14-million square kilometres of ice has evaded the grasp of mainstream tourism. But there is now “congestion” at landing sites as tens of thousands of people, in some of the largest cruise ships, head south.

Tourism is growing exponentially. Until 1987, fewer than 1 000 people travelled to the continent annually.
There were 6 500 in 1992/93, and double that number in 2002/03. This year, more than 28 000 people are expected to come within inches of the kind of wildlife and landscapes normally seen only on film. The trend is set to continue following the success of the March of the Penguins film.

In addition to ship-based tourism, the scale and spread of tourist activities are increasing. Adventurous types can now strap on skis and slash fresh tracks down Antarctica’s uninhabited slopes, take one of the many helicopter rides that clatter daily over breeding penguin colonies, snowboard, climb mountains, kayak or scuba dive.

“Land-based tourism could have severe repercussions because nowhere is out of bounds,’’ says James Barnes, director of the Antarctic and Southern Oceans Coalition (Asoc), a group of 150 environmental groups. “If tourists start treating Antarctica as an activity theme park, instead of respecting its status in international law as a natural reserve dedicated to peace and science, we have got a serious problem.’‘

Asoc is concerned that the industry is rapidly diversifying. Large passenger vessels are now active in the Antarctic. Many carry helicopters, which increases the penetration of pristine areas.

Possible impacts already identified include sea and coastal pollution, littering, damage to flora and fauna, disruption of breeding patterns and interference with research activities.

The number of landing sites in the Antarctic interior visited by tourists increased from 147 in 2003/04 to 175 in 2004/05. At the same time, established landing sites—usually beaches that are teeming with seals, penguins and sea birds—are being exposed to heavy human traffic.

“Some tour operators are saying the situation is farcical,’’ says Ricardo Rosso, an environmental consultant and Asoc member. “The word ‘congestion’ pops up frequently when talking about vessels trying to access landing sites while preserving the illusion of a wilderness by staying out of sight of each other.”

But, says Asoc, this is just the tip of the iceberg. It points to long-term environmental impacts, such as marine pollution and fuel emissions from higher numbers of tourist vessels. Preliminary research at Deception Island indicates hydrocarbon contamination that correlates with the intensity of tourist activity.

A decade ago, tourist vessels carried no more than 60 to 100 people. Now some of the large cruise ships carry up to 1 000 passengers and use heavy fuel oil.

The scientific community also has a history of using the region as a scrapyard, dumping waste and leaving vehicles stranded on the pack ice. In 1962, the Americans installed a nuclear reactor that was dismantled 10 years later after a series of mishaps, including fires and radioactive leakages. But much of this activity was stopped by the Antarctic Treaty System’s 1991 environment protocol.

Asoc wants to see tourism included in the framework of Antarctic governance, with enforceable and legally binding requirements, either through an additional annexe to the environmental protocol or through a series of formal measures under the Antarctic treaty itself.—Â

Client Media Releases

UKZN backs its team at Comrades
Dean makes history