This startling subhead appeared in a recent Atlantic article about Antarctic travel, in a story that makes very good points about how and why travel to the last continent is becoming a lot less sustainable.
Earlier this year, I wrote a post asking: Have we reached the tipping point for Antarctic travel? I pointed out that when I went to Antarctica in 2004, there were about 20,000 tourists a year visiting the continent, and by the time My Last Continent was published in 2016, that number had doubled. This past season, that number reached more than 100,000.
In the eyes of many, we have indeed reached the tipping point. The Atlantic story is just one of several I’ve read lately highlighting concerns with tourism in Antarctica
I was so fortunate to have been able to see this majestic continent nearly two decades ago, and I’ve always responded to readers’ questions about Antarctic travel in a positive way, in part because it is hardly fair to discourage people to go when I myself have been there.
But I also believe that the continent has many other problems that need solving — and that travel to the continent can, in fact, inspire visitors to save what they are bound to fall in love with: the ice, the wildlife, the pristine wilderness that exists nowhere else on Earth.
While decades ago, the human impact of travelers in Antarctica was small, now the impacts are greater — not only the carbon footprint of getting to the bottom of the world, but the introduction of bacteria, invasive species, and the effects on wildlife. As this article points out, “A recent study found elevated concentrations of black carbon – soot – in the snow around popular Antarctic tourism sites, which causes snow to darken and melt more rapidly. Researchers have also identified 14 non-native species around the Antarctic Peninsula, transported on clothing and in food.”
The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) does an excellent job of encouraging sustainable travel and minimizing impact (yet it does remain a voluntary membership, and not all tour operators are members — those who do travel to Antarctica should be sure their tour company abides by all sustainable travel guidelines).
Ever since My Last Continent was first published, seven years ago, I’ve been pointing out that while tourism does affect the continent, Antarctica has bigger problems: global warming, overfishing, pollution from the fishing industry (from oil spills to discarded fishing gear). My own trip to Antarctica was life-changing — and the continent offers this experience to every potential visitor. If people return from Antarctica with a passion for tackling climate change, protecting endangered species, and making the world a better place, does this not make the trip worthwhile?
It’s not likely that every single one of the 100,000-plus visitors to Antarctica this season returned home and became vegans, stopped driving, committed to a net-zero lifestyle. But if each of them devoted their lives to some form of change for good, this would have an impact. For example, if we as a human species stopped eating seafood, much of the Antarctic’s problems would resolve — the myriad threatened species in the Southern Ocean, from whales to penguins, could have access the food we humans are taking from them, giving them a better chance at survival.
Of course, not all visitors will have such reverence for the continent. The Atlantic notes that “many sightseers bring a whiff of ‘last-chance tourism’—a desire to see a place before it’s gone, even if that means helping hasten its disappearance.” And as this Guardian article points out, “in some areas tourists have traipsed over delicate mosses and plants. Some historic structures have even been scarred by graffiti.” And for many tourists, there seems to be far less interest in learning about the unique landscape, history, and wildlife in Antarctica than in doing things they can do just about anywhere else: climbing, camping, cross-country skiing, paddleboarding, snorkeling.
There is no official cap on the number of tourists who can visit Antarctica, and, as the Atlantic advocates, Antarctica “is actually most valuable to us when left wild, so that it can continue to act as a buffer against climate change, a storehouse of the world’s fresh water, and a refuge for birds, whales, seals, fish, and even the krill that the entire marine ecosystem depends on.”
As this article notes, “Antarctica doesn’t need ambassadors; it needs guardians.” While surely one of the best ways to protect Antarctica may be to leave it alone, at the same time, seeing a place firsthand may be the most powerful way to let it change your life and vow to protect what you were able to witness firsthand so that it will all be there for others to see in the future. As acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton says in this 2010 interview in The Sun magazine: “…the wildlife wouldn’t miss us if we didn’t visit. But the reality is that experiencing wilderness increases the chance that we will preserve it.”