Besieged by tourism, the Antarctic is under threat

Besieged by tourism, the Antarctic is under threat

24th January 2009, Comments 0 comments

Antarctica’s marine environment is under new and severe pressures as thousands flock to see its icy landscapes.

Global warming is not the only factor that is slowly degrading Antarctica’s unique environment.

The Antarctic wilderness is also attracting a growing number of tourists keen to experience the icy landscape.

In 1992, around 6,000 nature-lovers made the long journey south. By last season, the number rose to 46,000 -- a clear sign of the boom in travel to the area surrounding the South Pole. It also marks an increase in the number of shipping operators offering cruises to the Antarctic Peninsula during the five-month period from November to March.

The onslaught of tourists has lead many to call for new guidelines that would impose more stringent controls on the number of vessels visiting the region.

The voluntary International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), set up in 1991, already has some guidelines in place. Primarily, they stipulate how many ships a year may visit the peninsula and where they must dock.
Passengers, scientists, government officials and ground crew walk on the purpose-built Wilkins glacial blue ice runway to the first Airbus A319 jet to carry passengers from Hobart to Antarctica, some 65kms from the Australian Antarctic research station of Casey, 11 January 2008. The historic flight began the world's first commercial air service to Antarctica.  AFP PHOTO/POOL/Torsten BLACKWOOD

The aim is to limit the adverse impact on the environment. Tour organizers are required to give prior notice of visits and no more than 100 passengers at a time are allowed to set foot on the continent at its various landing points. Once passengers have debarked, they are allowed to stay for a maximum of four hours before resuming their onward voyage.

Vessels with more than 500 passengers on board are prohibited from landing, something that should be borne in mind by those eager to sample the genuine atmosphere of an Antarctic expedition.

Princess Cruises currently deploys the largest ships in the Antarctic. Last year, the company offered sightseeing trips aboard the Golden Princess, with 2,600 passengers and 1,100 crew. This year, its sister ship, the Star Princess, will be setting sail.

Bearing in mind the regulations, travelers on these ships would be well advised to take along a high-powered telescope if they want to take in the grandeur of the landscape.

Ecosystem under threat
Last season, the IAATO issued permission to 61 cruise ships -- nearly twice as many as five years ago.
AFP PHOTO/SCIENCE/© Simon Brockington/British Antarctic Survey
Cushion stars (Odontaster validus) feeding on seal feces in the shallows of South Cove, Antarctica, late winter, 1998. Shrinking sea ice is significantly increasing the rate at which icebergs scour the Antarctic seabed. About 80 percent of Antarctic marine life is found on the seabed and these scours crush animals and plants living up to 500 meters below the surface. While they do promote biodiversity by creating space for marine animals to live, too many scours could change the distribution of key species and affect the type and number of creatures living in Antarctic waters. The number of ice scours is expected to increase in the short-term as global warming continues to reduce the size and duration of winter sea ice. AFP PHOTO/SCIENCE/© Simon Brockington/British Antarctic Survey/

The strain on the delicate eco-systems of the Antarctic grows with every visitor who sets foot on the territory, even if the guidelines are usually adhered to. Visitors’ shoes are disinfected before and after they land and they are obliged to maintain a distance of least five meters to penguins and other animals.

Under the IAATO code of conduct, ships visiting Antarctica must be powered by diesel rather than the heavy fuel oils normally used by many vessels and water and waste may not be discharged into Antarctic waters.

Yet, many feel that these guidelines are inadequate.

"When it comes to tonnage there is a degree of insensibility," said Sebastian Ahrens, managing director of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises in Hamburg.

Hapag-Lloyd helped set up the IAATO but would now prefer operators to be strictly regulated rather than rely on voluntary compliance. "If you cruise along certain parts of the Norwegian coast, the authorities keep a very close watch, but for the Antarctic no clearly defined rules apply," said Ahrens.
View of the MS Explorer beginning to heel starboard after hitting an iceberg 23 November 2007. For those not familiar with the MS Explorer, she originally was the Linblad Explorer and is credited with opening the Antarctic to tourism beginning with her maiden voyage there in 1969. The 100 passengers and most of the 54 crew from the MS Explorer were picked up safely after the Titanic-style accident near the South Shetland islands. AFP PHOTO/CHILEAN NAVY

"These criteria represent absolute minimum standards which must be enforced in the area," said Caroline Schacht of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in Hamburg. "Unfortunately, far too many shipping lines have not signed the treaty.”

A number of shipping lines have already reacted to the Antarctic overcrowding. Norway's Hurtigruten is sending the MS Fram to see penguins for the 2008-2009 season but not its sister ship MS Nordnorge. Speaking in Hamburg, the company's managing director Bernd Stolzenberg said the move was in response to the "increasingly difficult Antarctic market."

Hilke Segbers/DPA/Expatica

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