Tourist Arrivals Up in Antarctica

There are only two ways to get to Antarctica: By ship and by plane. And neither one is an easy journey.

Still, Antarctica is now more accessible than ever, and it has become the “it” place to visit for adventure tourists

The 2007-2008 tourism season set records with more than 46,000 tourists making the journey to Antarctica. This is more than 20 times the number in 1983.

But environmentalists are worried about their impact. Uruguayan environmentalist Rodrigo Ponce de Leon says the concerns begin with how the tourists get to Antarctica.

“The main problem is with touristic ships,” he said.

The vessels can and do leak gasoline or oil into the normally pristine waters, despite efforts to stay environmentally friendly.

Even a small spill in this fragile environment can have deadly consequences.

Ponce de Leon says the most vulnerable creatures to the leaks are krill -- the shrimp-like crustaceans that form the foundation of the Antarctic food chain.

“Krill is very important for the life here. Not only for us, it is important for the life of the birds, penguins, that’s the fish, mammals,” he said.

The International Association of Antarctic Tourism Operators admits things are getting a bit crowded… especially along the Antarctic Peninsula.

Brazil’s Jose De Medeiros says everyone working on Antarctica is aware of the issue.

“The human presence is bigger here than any other place and that’s why it is the most impacted area,” he said.

While there is a limit to the number of boats which can come into harbor at any given time… there is no such limit on the ship’s size and the ships are getting bigger.

Member nations of the Antarctic Treaty, which governs the continent, are considering imposing mandatory tourism limits.

But increased tourism is not the only concern. The proliferation of research stations scattered about the continent also is having an impact.

There are now more than 60 in all and the head of Chile’s Antarctic program Jose Retamales says many are expanding their stations.

“Half the buildings you have seen, they were not there five years go. The Chinese station, the Korean Station, all they make new buildings, I don’t think we should have so many stations in Antarctica,” he said.

Yet no country seems willing to give up an established station even though most conduct similar experiments and then share information under the Treaty guidelines.

“The studies of Antarctica are important for each country because it’s a continent very big and a lot of country come to have observations of each point in Antarctica,” said Alexander Orup, who heads the Russian station.

Yet the bases are trying to reduce the impact of their operations.

Composting facilities like this one at Chile’s Frei base on King George Island are just one of the programs which have been implemented under an environmental protection accord reached in 1980.

Recycling in general is now standard operating procedure and the stations are looking for more environmentally friendly alternatives to the heating oil they use to power and heat their buildings.

By living and working in Antarctica, they know better than most what the human impact can be in an environment where the cold temperatures preserve the good… and the bad.