Antarctic Tourism

21 04 2009


The 32nd Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting ended last week in Baltimore, Maryland. Among many issues discussed by the assembled scientists and world leaders was the impact of tourism on the Antarctic and concerns that its steady growth could potentially damage the fragile environment. chinstrap-penguin-1-mw


Only a few decades ago, Antarctica was the exclusive domain of scientists and explorers but tourism has quadrupled in the past ten years with more than 46,000 people visiting the continent and surrounding area last year alone. Compare that with 1990’s total of 5,000 visitors and it is clear that tourism to the End of the World has exploded.


Hillary Rodham Clinton was amongst those expressing a desire to see tighter controls on Antarctic tourism. Although there was no call to ban tourism completely, there were suggestions for limits on the number of ships and landings, restrictions on how close vessels come to shore, a ban on the construction and development of tourist facilities and hotels on the continent, and rules on waste discharge from ships.


In the past few years there have been a number of well-publicised incidents involving small, specialised Antarctic expedition cruise vessels. Although none resulted in death or serious environmental damage, these events did raise awareness of the risks involved in operating in such a remote, hostile and fragile region. Of particular concern to scientists and environmentalists are the large cruise ships which visit Antarctic waters as part of South American itineraries. Although these ships attempt to avoid the ice and do not yet send passengers ashore, fears remain that without ice-strengthened hulls and experienced pilots, one will eventually have a problem and the result will be an epic disaster for both the 5,000 passengers and the environment.


A further concern centres on the impact that tourism has on the area’s fragile ecosystem. The British Antarctic Survey has been monitoring gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy on the Antarctic Peninsula for several years. During that time they have determined that although the area is heavily visited, provided the tourists are properly managed and controlled while ashore, the impact is minimal. However, as numbers increase there remains the distinct possibility of less well-supervised visits and negative interaction or possibly even the introduction of disease, rats or insects which would cause devastation.


As can be evidenced by the British Antarctic Survey’s study, the majority of companies that currently take adventure travellers to the Antarctic are responsible and environmentally sensitive. Visitors are properly prepared for their trips even before they leave home, and once there they are carefully supervised in what is unquestionably the trip of a lifetime. Delegates to the conference agreed that tourism has tremendous value in publicising the threats from Global warming, pollution and other issues that the Antarctic increasingly faces. There was general consensus that efforts should be made to keep both visitors and the environment safe rather than close the area completely, but it is clear that maximum numbers and greater restrictions will likely be imposed in the near future.



Photo and post by:  Simon Vaughan © 2009

Global Warming

3 03 2009


“What do you mean, you locked the keys inside?” (off Vernadsky, Antarctic)


Not many people stroll through the Louvre, encounter the Mona Lisa and exclaim “Oh, is this where it is?” However, sometimes on our travels we do encounter things in the most unexpected of places and suddenly feel emotions akin to the surprise and satisfaction of finding something worthwhile in a Christmas cracker. I had one such experience in the Antarctic, and no, it wasn’t a polar bear!


Rarely does a day pass when we don’t hear reference to Global Warming. We’re barraged by images of melting glaciers, flooded towns and violent storms all attributed to the steadily increasing temperature of our planet. One of the first indications came from scientists who detected a growing hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic. In the pre-Al Gore “Inconvenient Truth” days, the discovery wasn’t widely reported in the mainstream press and largely went unnoticed. Now, both believers and debunkers are familiar with the suggested ramifications of that discovery.vernadsky


Hugging the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula on Galindez Island sits the Vernadsky Research Station, an Ukrainian facility with a long history. Britain first established a base there in 1947 and named it after Shackleton expedition member Sir James Wordie. Thirty years later, the base was renamed Faraday Station and remained a significant part of the British Antarctic Survey until 1996 when it was taken over by the Ukraine and renamed after scientist Vladimir Vernadsky.


We weaved past icebergs before landing on the rocky outcrop that was home to the small base. The original Wordie House still remains, although newer buildings now protect the scientists and their valuable work from the harsh elements. We stumbled ashore from our zodiac laden with fresh vegetables in gratitude for the staff’s kindness in hosting us for a few hours. On a clear Antarctic summer day with the temperature a few degrees above freezing and only a gentle breeze, life didn’t seem too bad. It’s only when you contemplate the long winter with its katabatic winds, deadly cold and months of darkness that you appreciate how difficult life can be for the dozen or so researchers who winter-over.


The scientists led us on a tour of the base. We saw their modest sleeping quarters, laboratories, work rooms and communications equipment. The walls were lined with photographs and mementoes of previous crews, supply ships and visitors. As a reminder of the base’s British origins, upstairs there was a cozy wooden-beamed pub complete with bar and games table.


Further down the hall a ladder led through a ceiling hatch and into the attic. There, beneath the eaves was the large Dobson Spectrophotometer which first detected the alarming growth of the hole in the ozone. Until the ‘80s, it was predicted that the ozone layer would decrease by approximately 7% over a 60-year period. Shortly afterwards – and largely based on observations conducted at the Faraday base – it was determined that as much as 50% of the ozone over a localized area of the Antarctic had in fact disappeared – and within a few years that number had increased to as much as 77% of its pre-1975 levels.


As the ozone layer is the Earth’s natural sunscreen and protects humans, plants and animals by filtering out harmful UV-B radiation, its depletion was an immediate cause for concern. Standing in my sock-feet in a warm hut in the Antarctic, staring at an inanimate object and realising that it was ultimately responsible for the term “Global Warming” and the birth of the unprecedented international interest in the fragility of our world, was an odd experience. Not preserved behind glass in a museum, but still in regular use monitoring the upper atmosphere was a piece of equipment responsible for an environmental discovery arguably as important as any other in the 20th century.


There, in the attic of a hut at the end of the world sat the unheralded environmental equivalent of the Rosetta Stone and there were no brass plaques, souvenir postcards or fridge magnets in sight!



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan