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Saving Antarctica for future generations

How tourists can help save Antarctica

Veena Patwardhan outlines why tourists need to understand the importance of saving Antarctica

saving antarctica for future generationsAntarctica, that remote, icy continent with pristine glaciers and environs, has always fascinated humankind. This unique continent at the South Pole has no human residents except for those working at scientific research stations and tourists, hardly any land plant life, and no reptiles, land mammals, or amphibians.

But it is far from a barren region. The Antarctic is bursting with a fascinating variety of sea creatures such as whales, seals, orcas, and numerous types of fish. Besides, the Antarctica shoreline is a nesting ground for penguins and migratory birds.

Antarctica is a stunningly beautiful destination, but it is also the most important laboratory in the world for scientists. By studying its clean air and water, and its ecosystem and geology they are able to understand the history of the world’s climate, how ice sheets are formed, and how human activities are impacting our planet. Which is why currently many countries including India have their research bases on this frozen continent. Some of the other areas of scientific research include marine biology, geology, astronomy, and astrophysics. In 1985, scientists at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) discovered the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica that disclosed the damage man-made chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) had made to the Earth’s atmosphere.

Several decades ago, scientists realised the importance of conserving the untainted environs of the Antarctic. Over half a century ago, there were just a few hundred tourists travelling to the Antarctic region. Unfortunately, with global warming making ice shelves collapse and glaciers recede, we’re seeing a surge in tourists making a beeline for places like Alaska and Antarctica, to feast their eyes on the natural beauty of such places before they vanish forever.

Antarctica tourism

antarctica tourismThe trend of tourists flying over Antarctica began in the 1950s. This was followed by ship journeys from Argentina, New Zealand, and Australia. Today tourists take sightseeing flights over the icy expanse of Antarctica or tour the area on Antarctica cruises. Currently, around 30,000 to 35,000 tourists visit the Antarctic each year mostly from November to March when its summer in the southern hemisphere.

In the case of any other country or region on earth, this would be considered as a very insignificant number. But for a region with such incredibly sensitive ecosystems, every foreign footfall is a potential threat.

Besides, Antarctica is one of those regions on earth that is warming up too rapidly, and so, there is a greater need than ever to protect it, before it’s too late.

Thankfully, some of the areas in Antarctica already have restricted access for scientific or ecological reasons. The Antarctic Specially Protected Areas (ASPAs) are where visitors cannot enter, while the Antarctic Specially Managed Areas (ASMAs) are those where specific activities such as tourist visits or science studies are permitted but subject special codes of conduct. But despite this, Antarctica, its environment, and surrounding waters are becoming increasingly vulnerable to various damaging forces.

Dangers to Antarctica

Though Antarctica is believed to be rich in minerals and precious metals like gold and silver besides coal and oil, it is fully protected from mineral exploitation and political conflicts. As per the Antarctic Treaty, it is a continent that is dedicated to peace and science.

However the continent faces the threat of undesirable alterations in its fragile ecosystems due to climate change and also uncontrolled and illegal fishing and other industrial activities. Given the keen desire of tourists to visit unspoiled places on earth, Antarctica tourism is becoming increasingly popular, and too many people are flocking there.

Also, the sad part is that both scientific and tourist activities are destroying the purity and beauty of Antarctica, the very attractive qualities that drew scientists and tourists to this remote continent in the first place. For example, on the one hand the Antarctic is being polluted by sewage and garbage being disposed into it by cruise ships and some of the bases, and on the other because of some bases treating their raw waste in biological treatment plants before disposal, harmful flame retardant chemicals called HBCDs are being discharged into the sea in high concentrations and have been detected in penguins, fish, and other aquatic life.

Oil spills, litter from ships and fishing boats, and ozone depletors like CFCs produced thousands of miles away from Antarctica and yet found in the ice and the bodies of creatures living here are other sources of pollution. Another danger to Antarctica is posed by organisms not native to this region being brought there on boats and cruise ships by way of seeds adhering to the boots and clothing of visitors.

What tourists can do to save Antarctica

Just a few simple precautions could go a long away in preserving the beauty and fragile ecosystems of Antarctica.
1. Preferably take only new clothes, boots, and gear like cameras, etc. when you leave for Antarctica. If you’re taking clothing you’ve worn before, wash it in a mild bleach solution. In the case of old shoes, rinse the soles in bleach solution. Either way, vacuum your clothes and shoes, and pack them in sealed plastic bags till you depart for Antarctica. Each time, before disembarking from the ship brush and vacuum your clothes, boots, bags, etc. and disinfect your camera tripods and other gear. You may not completely be able to prevent carrying non-native seeds, spores, or foreign organisms with you, but at least you’ll be able to do the best you can this way.
2. Don’t leave behind any trace of your visit. You can do this by planning in advance for collecting and bringing back your rubbish and bio-degradable waste. Carry dry, sealable bags and other storage containers with you so that you can use these for discarding such waste.
3. Don’t throw anything over the side of the ship into the Antarctic, not even a tiny scrap of paper or plastic.
4. Do not feed the wildlife if you come across any or leave behind any scraps of food for them.
5. Do not disturb any natural vegetation like moss and lichen.
6. Strictly follow the instructions of your guides and tour operators.

More details about guidelines for visitors to the Antarctic issued by IAATO (International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators) are available here:
http://iaato.org/c/document_library/get_file?uuid=022e237f-740e-4e7a-b952-a8acfe5d45c8&groupId=10157

Despite Antarctica tours being very expensive, many people don’t mind the high costs just for the joy of visiting this breathtakingly beautiful, unspoilt continent. But if we don’t take precautionary steps in time to conserve it, then one of our most pristine, large regions will disappear forever from the face of the earth.

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