Antarctic Tourism – Environmental concern or educational experience?

A recent piece on the BBC website, featuring the Lynch Lab’s own Phil McDowall, discusses the issue of tourism in the Antarctic. In light of this I’ve decided to elaborate upon a few musings of my (Casey) own:

Over the course of the last 20 years, tourism in the Antarctic has experienced a surprisingly explosive period of growth. More people than ever before now visit the white continent via a number of expedition vessels operated by various tour operators based around the world. These ships transport anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred passengers across the Drake Passage, bound for the waters of the Antarctic. Individual motivations for coming to the Antarctic vary. Some come for the majestic ice, with their deep blue hues and sculpture-like construction. Some come for the unique and often inquisitive wildlife, endemic to the Antarctic region. Others simply want to check off Antarctica from their ‘list’, representing their seventh continent traveled. Whatever the reason, this place, politically delineated by those areas south of the 60th parallel in the southern hemisphere, naturally draws people to it, just as it did over 100 years ago in polar explorers such as Amundsen, Scott, and Shackleton.

Now officially reserved for science, as part of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty System, how is Antarctica to be managed? What are we to make of this recent surge in human visitation to this area of the globe once known only as Terra Australia Incognita – Land of the Unknown South?

One concern is that this increase in the number of visitors each year is placing unnecessary strain on an ecosystem that has lived free of human intervention until just several centuries ago. To complicate matters, the Antarctic Peninsula (AP) region, far and away the most heavily visited areas on the continent, is currently one of the most rapidly warming places on the planet. It’s evident that rapid ecological change is currently underway, but what role does tourism play in all of this?

The good news is that recent studies have found no major impact of tourism (in its current, managed state) on penguin population dynamics in the region. As penguins nest in areas frequently visited by tour operations, we are understandably concerned that these animals may be negatively impacted by our activities; however, the evidence for a negative impact on penguin populations in the Antarctic is so far largely inconclusive. In part this is because penguins (especially gentoo penguins) are easily habituated (which is itself an impact, but not of the kind most people are concerned about…), and partly because climate change is having such a massive effect that any impacts from tourism are hard to measure. Disentangling potential environmental impacts of tourism from the effects of rapid climatic change is one goal of science in the Antarctic today, and a major focus of research currently underway in the Lynch Lab.

From a non-scientific standpoint, tourists may actually help the Antarctic in its current plight. Those that have the privilege to experience this most remote of continents cannot  help but leave this place in awe of its beauty and splendor. Upon returning home, tales will be told to friends and family of the penguins, the seals, the mountains, the seas. This is a place that inspires and when people are inspired by something they feel the need to protect and conserve that thing. Tourists can become ambassadors of Antarctica and help to create a greater appreciation and acknowledgement of what exists there. While this impact may be difficult to quantify, the public is likely more aware of Antarctica than ever, thanks in part to tourism. So while it may seem counter intuitive, perhaps this increase in polar popularity is for the best – both for the people and this now slightly less unknown Land of the South.