6 Ways Tourism is Impacting Antarctica’s Environment

Antarctica, the vast ice-land, located on the southern pole, is one of the world’s most remote destinations. Antarctica is only home to majestic wildlife, short-term research scientists, and  now some 35,000 annual tourists. Tourists want to see the pristine environment and experience extreme adventure such as skydiving or kayaking. What seems like a small step on land or quick cruise through the waters is a big impact for Antarctica. Although the tourism industry has to follow the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, the increased visitors have a major impact on the future of Antarctica.
Adventure enthusiasts crave extreme activities, which has the tourism industry finding unique ways to provide one-of-a-kind activities in Antarctica. From skydiving over the ice to scuba diving under the ice, pollution is slowly ‘leaking’ into the air and water. Boats are now taking inland trips, also dangerous, which will pollute the inner regions of water and ice to impact environmental damage. Pollution includes omitted exhaust, oil or liquid gas that is excreted from the machines.

Oil Spills
As people recover from the financial crisis, tourists are making up for the years lost in travel. Antarctic tourism is a booming, and the upcoming 2013 and 2014 expect an increase in visitors. When demand increases, so does business. This means that there is a possibility of larger cruise ships entering these pure waters. Researchers and environmental advocates have a fear that if a cruise ship, especially in the interior land, will strike an iceberg and contaminate the water and wildlife with a major oil spill.  This can affect and kill rare or endangered species such as the polar bear, minke whale and humpback whale. This would be one challenging spill to clean as the water has the possibility to freeze in various spots. In 2011,the International Maritime Organization barred the use of heavy, thick oil in areas located below 60 degrees latitude south.

Food Populations
Gas and oil are excreted from ships. Even the smallest leaks can have the biggest impact. Small leaks affect the krill population, which is the foundation of the Antarctic food chain.  If the krill decrease in population or randomly disappears, than many polar animals will suffer and starve. On a smaller scale, global warming has increased UV radiation, which has an impact on phytoplankton communities. This affects the food chain as krill eat phytoplankton for survival.

Researchers and environmental advocates are fearful that the once pristine environment will be trampled and ruined due to human footprint. Other fears include the importing or transmission of microbes or other species that do not belong in Antarctica. Whether purposeful or accidental, the fear is that the integration of foreign species (plants, micro-organisms, species) can disturb the natural flora and fauna and change the natural environment. One question to bring in mind is if an invasive plant or animal would create a disease spreading issue similar to the hoof-and-mouth disease. Scientists are still learning about new discoveries in Antarctica, including the recent whale bone discovery, which supports bacteria and strange creatures like zombie worms.

Breaking the Rules
Sometimes, conscious, mindful living goes right out the door when people are in routine of a daily habit. In a recent Associated Press article, Antarctic advocates were quoted that they hear ‘horror’ stories of people, researcher or tourist,breaking the rules from smoking to standing too close to the animals. This in itself is a constant reminder to respect the places we visit, near or far.

Global Contamination
The world is impacting Antarctica more than we think. Technologies and planet-wide impacts affect the southern pole with depletion of ozone layers and rapid ice melting (global warming). With the implementation of tourists and scientists on site this is directly harming the more local environment. Global changes affect the melting of the ice. This breaks the ice and causes loss of habitat for those who depend on the ice-land as home. It is challenging to un-do what has already been done. Adding localized footprints and pollution may increase the rate of damage.

Overall, there are many regulations that the tourism industry must follow. Although visitors may spend only a few hours on land and more time at sea, the long-term footprint and pollution can be detrimental to the environment and wildlife, especially with the increasing tourism. Remember, every foot step you take somehow affects the planet. Be mindful and conscious, especially when traveling to Antarctica.