Antarctica fears grow as tourists return

A view of the Admiralty Mountains and icebergs near Cape Hallet in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.
A view of the Admiralty Mountains and icebergs near Cape Hallet in the Ross Sea, Antarctica.

Across most of Earth, a tourist attraction that attracts 35,000 visitors a year can safely be labelled sleepy.

But when it's Antarctica, every footstep matters.

Tourism has taken off again, and it's not just retirees watching penguins from the deck of a ship. Visitors are taking tours inland and even engaging in "adventure tourism", skydiving and scuba diving.

In this remote, frozen land, tourism comes with risks, for both the continent and the tourists.

Boats pollute water and air, and create the potential for more devastating environmental damage. When something goes wrong, help can be a long way off.

The downturn triggered by the economic meltdown created an opportunity for the 50 countries that share responsibility through the Antarctic Treaty to set rules to manage tourism, but little has been done.

An international committee on Antarctica has produced just two mandatory rules, and neither of those is yet in force.

"I think there's been a foot off the pedal in recent years," says Alan Hemmings, an environmental consultant on polar regions.

Antarctic tourism grew from fewer than 2000 visitors a year in the 1980s to more than 46,000 in 2007-08.

The numbers fell to fewer than 27,000 in 2011-12, but the US-based International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators estimates close to 35,000 people visited during Antarctica's 2012-2013 tourist season.

It expects slightly more tourists this season, which runs from November through March.

It's not just the numbers of tourists but the activities that are changing, says Hemmings, who has been part of a delegation representing New Zealand in some Antarctic Treaty discussions.

Today's tourism is "much more action orientated", he says. "Now people want to go paragliding, waterskiing, diving or a variety of other things."

Visitors can also skydive over the frigid landscape, and London-based Henry Cookson Adventures takes two- and three-man submarines to Antarctica.

Hemmings was once asked to advise on a Germany company's plan to fly gliders over the colossal Transantarctic Mountains to the South Pole, but that project was never carried out.

On Ross Island, a stark black-and-white outcrop of ice on porous, volcanic rock, the active volcano Mt Erebus stands as a warning of the dangers of tourism in this environment.

In 1979, an Air New Zealand plane on a sightseeing tour from Auckland slammed into the mountain, killing all 257 people aboard.

Some of the earliest attempts at skydiving in Antarctica also ended in tragedy. Two Americans and an Austrian died in the same jump in 1997 near the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at the geographic South Pole.

Antarctica is not only the world's coldest, driest and windiest continent, but also the highest. The South Pole is on an icy plateau 2835 meters above sea level and the air is thin.

This is a land of many hazards, not all of them obvious. The dry air makes static electricity a constant threat to electronics and a fire risk when refuelling vehicles.

While Antarctica is as big as the United States and Mexico combined, tourists and scientists mostly keep to areas that aren't permanently frozen and where wildlife can be found. Those account for less than 2 per cent of the continent.

Hemmings says tourist ships have been involved in several mishaps in Antarctica in the past five years.

Most tourists arrive on the Antarctic Peninsula, easily accessible from Argentina and Chile. The next most popular destination is the Ross Sea on the opposite side of the continent, a 10-day sail from New Zealand or Australia.

Both landscapes are intensely bright and silent during the 17 weeks between sunrise and sunset in the summer. The peninsula is a milder environment and has a wider variety of fauna and flora.

Two cruise ships visited the sea's Ross Island, connected to the continent by ice, last summer. Summer temperatures average minus 6 degrees Celsius but often seem colder due to wind chill.

Passengers visited the sprawling US McMurdo Station, which can accommodate more than 1200 people, as well as New Zealand's neighbouring Scott Base, which sleeps fewer than 90.

Many also visited a nearby drafty hut, built by doomed British explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott in 1902 as an expedition base.

The two bases, separated by a three-kilometre ice road, don't facilitate tourism, but tourists are generally welcomed. Both have well-stocked gift shops.

Antarctic New Zealand's environment manager Neil Gilbert says more robust monitoring is needed to track tourism's impacts.

"The Antarctic Peninsula ... is one of, if not the most rapidly warming part of the globe," Gilbert says.

"We really don't know what additional impact that those tourism numbers ... are having on what is already a very significantly changing environment."

There are fears that habitat will be trampled, and that tourists will introduce exotic species or microbes.

Another fear is that a cruise ship carrying thousands of passengers will run into trouble in these ice-clogged, storm-prone and poorly charted waters, creating an environmentally disastrous oil spill and a rescue crisis.

To reduce the risk of spills, the United Nations' shipping agency, the International Maritime Organisation, barred the use of heavy fuel oil below 60 degrees latitude south in 2011.

The fuel-oil ban is a rare thing for Antarctic tourism: a binding rule.

The 28 countries that comprise the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Committee have made 27 non-binding recommendations on tourism since 1966, but just two mandatory rules - and neither of those is yet in force.

A 2004 agreement requiring tourism operators to be insured to cover possible rescue operations or medical evacuations has been ratified by only 11 of the 28 countries.

A 2009 agreement barring ships carrying more than 500 passengers from landing tourists - a measure to protect trampled sites - has the legal backing of just two countries, Japan and Uruguay.

The United States, by far the biggest source of tourists and tourism operators, has not signed either measure.

The International Maritime Organisation intends to enforce a Polar Code, detailing safety standards for ships entering both the Arctic and Antarctic regions.

It was supposed to be force by 2013, but the IMO now says it won't be adopted before 2014, and after that it will take another 18 months for the code to be implemented.

Hemmings says the lack of standards is a problem because increasing numbers of cruise ships are negotiating the poorly charted and storm-prone seas without ice-strengthened hulls as Antarctic legs are added to South American, South Pacific and around-the-world cruises.

Steve Wellmeier, administrative director of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, says the impending rules could force some vessels out of the region.

In any case, he doesn't think tourism there will return to its explosive growth pre-GFC rates, simply because the ships are not available.

Tourists far outnumber the scientists and support staff at scientific research stations in Antarctica during summer, but the researchers make more of an impact because they stay longer.

The summer population at the 39 stations across the continent peaked at about 4400 in the 2011-12 year.

Wellmeier believes tourists should not be considered separately from the question of overall human impact on the Antarctic environment. He says too often it is research-station personnel who flout the rules: "We hear horror stories every season."

The US has been criticised on environmental grounds for building a 1600-kilometre ice road from McMurdo Station to the South Pole on which tractors drag fuel and supplies on sleds. The road provides a more reliable alternative to frequently grounded air services.

Australia-based adventurer Tim Jarvis sees Antarctic tourists not as a problem, but as part of the solution for a frozen continent where the ice is rapidly retreating.

If more tourists see its wonders and the impacts of climate change, particularly on the Antarctic Peninsula, Jarvis says, the world will become more inclined to protect the continent.

"It's a pity we live in a world that's a little bit overregulated in many respects," he says of the prospect of greater controls on tourism.

Jarvis led a party of six in January and February on a 19-day re-enactment of British explorer Ernest Shackleton's desperate sea and land journey to a South Georgia Island whaling station in the southern Atlantic Ocean in 1916.

Jarvis and his party spent more than a year applying for five permits from various treaty countries and did detailed risk assessments and environmental impact statements.

They paid for their own back-up boat to rescue them in case anything went wrong.

"My broader message to people is that we all have the potential to do far more in our lives than we feel we're capable of doing and we should go and explore that ... but do it responsibly," Jarvis says.