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Very few places on Earth today can boast of unexplored and untouched natural beauty. One of the most pristine, awe-inspiring and humbling places being Antarctica with barely a handful of uncharted recesses. However, the continent is alluring to one and all, be it scientists, legal or illegal fishermen, oil and gas conglomerates and mining corporations or the inquisitive adventure seeking camera toting tourist.
But what is it about this continental island that appeals? Undoubtedly the vast whiteness and the priceless natural gems it enshrines. It is a world in itself of penguins, whales, seals and albatrosses to name a few. Each that constitutes a delicate yet intricate system, naturally programmed to keep it in balance. Further it holds in its depths – precious to man and his lifestyle today – an abundance of minerals.
Whilst recent studies like NASA’s report on growing Antarctic ice lead people to debunk global warming and its impacts on the continent, it is imperative to acknowledge the earth as a system on the whole. Climate change is not isolated to warming phenomena uniformly; it also encompasses extreme weather events and cooling patterns. Nonetheless, it is not climate change alone that may put Antarctica’s delicate environment in precarious predicament; there are other factors that require consideration.
The evils of legal or illegal mining are perhaps aplenty, with brutal systemic impacts; however, Antarctica is safe from it for the moment – The Antarctic Treaty of 1959, originally between twelve signatory nations, and now an incremental fifty three, prevents claims to territory on the continent and safeguards its natural bounties from plunder. This however, despite some contrary claims, is up for revisiting in 2048. The growing global murmur for Antarctic commercial explorations is apparent and the continent’s fate is uncertain beyond mid-century. It may be presumed that there shall be premeditated negotiations between the prevailing powers and compromises from the smaller yet important parties in attempting to meet the ever increasing needs of humankind unless we witness tectonic shifts in our consumption patterns.
These matters along with other aspects like fishing however require more in-depth examination and discussion. These may generate some degree of vexation as a layperson that has minimal influence over the panning out of these activities; yet there is one that is under all our control – tourism. Being the direct beneficiary of this ‘commodity’ we have the exercising power over its extent. What however may be missing is a deeper understanding of the environmental impacts that it entails.
Before delving into any adverse impacts that tourism has on the fragile environment of Antarctica, it is imperative to acknowledge the upsides of it. Awed travellers to this spectacular continent become the flag bearers of the continent and can be instrumental in promoting the message of conservation by educating those back home.
Furthermore, travellers to Antarctica are typically ones with some economic capability, given the expense involved to travel. This implies a degree of voice and power they may possess and be able to exercise if the Antarctic Treaty System comes up for a rejig.
In a paper put forth in 1987, the author predicted the unlikelihood of tourism increasing to Antarctica owing to harsh climatic conditions and resources required. However, in stark contrast, numbers started rising with the austral summer spanning November 2013 to March 2014 reportedly seeing 37,405 tourists arrive on the continent, encompassing both: who set foot ashore and those who did not. Whilst one may be wont to believe that those who do not land on the island have no adverse impact, the story pans out differently.
Typically tourists arrive in Antarctica by ships, with tour ships accounting for most of the continental traffic. Increasing numbers of tourists, since approximately 2500 recorded in the summer of 1989-1990, implies, increasing ship activity. Given the harsh climatic conditions, all visits are made only in the summer months, increasing the tourist density. Naturally the scale of impact is ramped up with more people that too restricted to a particular timeframe.
Despite the summertime conditions, accidents are prone to occur on uncharted rocks and hidden ice; the probability of which increase with increased traffic. Further more, these accidents may leave ships grounded, sometimes beyond rescue of the vehicle itself, with it going down several thousand litres of oil, waste and toxic chemicals from the mechanics of the ship. These could be immediately released into the environment or over a period of time; either way, damaging the delicate ecosystem and its inhabitants.
Those who come through unscathed leave an impact regardless. Tourists are increasingly becoming camera-toting enthusiasts, and by nature want to visit the most beautiful and pristine portions of the continent; alongside areas that the continent’s exotic species inhabit in an attempt to see and get up close to them. Even if these travellers do not make a landing on the continental mass, their approach via small boats closer to land poses as a disturbance to the wildlife. Especially as much of the breeding season is in the summer, tourist activity coincides with it. Whilst studies do not yet verifiably indicate decline in numbers of some penguin colonies as a result of tourism, there have been cases recorded of decline and near extinction of some species. It is important to note the prevalence of restrictions on tourists from entering Sites of Special Scientific Interests (SSSIs) that contain vulnerable wildlife and their breeding grounds. However, naturally one may understand that increasing disturbance from mounting number of tourists and visits in the region alone could adversely affect the different species that call Antarctica home. This may transpire in the form of increased anxiety in breeding birds causing them to relocate, and on occasion abandon their nests. Further the possibility of invasive species that humans and their vessels may carry onto the continent can endanger the native species. Also, repeated visits to any particular area by boat or ashore can damage or scar the fragile environment.
Tour operators are self-regulated by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO), which limits the number of people disembarking at a site and restricts the proximity to which one may approach wildlife. On paper, these regulations are perhaps the most aspirational across any tourism industry globally. However, in reality, there are obnoxious tourists who unashamedly breach protocol and wander amidst wildlife in pursuit of the perfect photograph. Visibly, by some first-hand accounts, increasing the anxiety levels of the fauna. Unfortunately, such despicable behaviour goes unchecked by guides and tour operators, in the absence of any binding accountability. Additionally, there are some operators who do not sign up with IAATO for reasons such as high membership fees for larger vessels, which to begin with are reported to be too big to enter the zone, yet they do.
Smaller private expeditions are increasing in number as well. The prime threat from them is their unpreparedness to cope with different eventualities. For example, in the event of a crash, humanitarian rescues are executed, but their crashed vehicles may not be removed, despite the imperativeness of them being so to limit environmental impact. Reportedly many are still where they were left years ago.
Previously waste and sewage was unceremoniously burnt, dumped into the sea or into crevasses or left on sea ice to its own fate, and ultimately nature’s. Owing to the extremely low temperatures, this waste would take several years to degenerate.
However, now tours are bound by codes of conduct and permits that are mandatory to travel. These entail waste and risk management along with stipulating minimisation of environmental impact. However, minimisation is subjective to each party and it is affirmative of certain environmental damage. Further, minimisation is not indicative of the extent of environmental damage that will be inflicted with each tour that goes out with each passing year.
While countries like Australia and Britain do have their own guidelines for tour operators to work within the Antarctic Treaty’s framework in coordination with IAATO, there is room for higher efficiencies.
Any proposition of banning tourism in Antarctica will probably not see fructification, and needless to say, tourists will continue to visit the frozen continent out of interest or to a globetrotter to gain the label of having travelled to all continents. Hence, what needs to be addressed is the tourism’s management and governance. IAATO regulations require to be made mandatory for all operators to sign up with enforceability. An evolved policy mechanism with controls would help curb unregistered tours, heighten environmental controls and prevent further damage to the fragile environment. However, given the self-regulatory nature of the group, ungoverned by a globally prevalent external enforcement body, the execution of this will be encumbered.
In the interim however, as tourists, we too can partake in attempting to minimise tourism’s footprint on the continent. Those undertaking the travel or knowing parties that are can move towards ensuring that:
- the travel is undertaken with companies that comply with IAATO
- ensure environmental protection measures have been adopted and
- help and rescue is more easily accessible
- responsible behaviour is adopted and encouraged among fellow passengers as well
- wildlife is not approached too close to avoid disturbance, threat and stress
- on return, the potentially profound experience is shared such that it also educates people of
- the delicateness of the environment
- imperativeness of conservation and preservation
- what negative impacts tourism and other human activities are having on the ecosystem
- guides potential tourists towards responsible ways of undertaking the visit
Adopting these practices can help manage the negative impact of tourism to a marginal extent, but shall nonetheless add up when taken up across all travellers. To mitigate the actual impact and its extent, more robust policies and enforcement is required. Till then knowledge and widespread education on the topic can help garner a voice for when the Antarctic Treaty is drawing near its close.
- Erize, Francisco J., The impact of tourism on the Antarctic environment. Environment International, Volume 13, Issue 1, 1987, Pages 133-136
- Dessler, Andrew, Introduction to Modern Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, 2015.
- Sands, Philippe, Principles of International Environmental Law. 2nd Edition, Cambridge University Press, 2003
- NASA, Mass Gains of Antarctic Ice Sheet Greater than Losses. 2015,https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/nasa-study-mass-gains-of-antarctic-ice-sheet-greater-than-losses
- British Antarctic Survey, www.bas.ac.uk
- Australian Antarctic Division, Department of the Environment and Energy, Australian Government, http://www.antarctica.gov.au/about-antarctica/tourism/australian-policy