As I sat with my dinner in my lap (because who needs tables?), I browsed YouTube for a video I hadn’t seen before to enjoy with my meal. I came across a news story detailed by John Oliver who spoke about a developing problem in Antarctica: increasing tourist numbers are threatening the biodiversity of the frozen continent. The information was sound, and the threat is real — but John’s solution (although humorous) was to stop going to Antarctica all together. He even went so far as to suggest that if you really need to feel the blistering cold on your face, that you go to Alaska and lie to your friends that you visited Antarctica.
I didn’t really buy it though. I completely agree that tourism can be a threat towards biodiversity, but I don’t believe that the best way to circumvent this problem is to completely cease all travel to the bottom of the world.
As travellers, we wish to experience foreign and pristine environments so that we can learn about them, so that we can understand them, and so that we can care and potentially conserve them. The irony is that, in doing so, we risk damaging what we originally went to protect.
This will be a common theme of many of my blogs: the fine line that humans must tread to ensure worldwide exposure to a problem without further contributing to the problem itself.
Back on track. So, we’re harming Antarctica. Now, that may not be big news (and maybe even a little cliché) if you like to stay updated with environmental issues. However, what is novel is the means by which this harm originated. And no, it’s not global warming this time. It turns out that more and more people are visiting Antarctica each year, and the increasing number of tourists are affecting the continent’s overall biodiversity (I’ll get to the how in a moment).
Antarctica is a pristine landscape, whose colour reflects its purity and unspoiled nature...
To most people, the frozen landscape is likely the last location on anyone’s “must travel to” list. However, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, over 37,000 people travelled there in 2014(1). And I can understand their curiosity. Antarctica is a pristine landscape, whose colour reflects its purity and unspoiled nature; it has been described as the “last of the wild”(2) and is an ideal destination for those looking to view unmatched landscapes and learn about the intricacies of the ecosystems that Antarctica contains.
However, the majority of Antarctica’s visitors make the pilgrimage to a small portion of the land-mass. Tourists (as opposed to researchers) localize themselves to the non-ice-covered regions of the continent — which is only about 1-2% of it’s land. The majority of the plants and animals that call Antarctica home reside in this 2%, and I’m sure you can now see where the problem lies.
In an interview with ABC news, Dr. Martin Riddle of the Australian Antarctic Devision stated:
“Even walking on Antarctic moss beds would leave footprints that would last for decades, if not centuries(3)”
I personally couldn’t conjure up with a better metaphor for human impact even if I tried — I mean, humans are literally (and as an extension, metaphorically) leaving century lasting footprints on the plants. Aside from the blatant physical impact of human encroachment, tourists also inadvertently harm Antarctica’s biodiversity by accidentally ferrying over alien species to the white desert. A study published in Conservation Biology identified that non-native bluegrass has colonized in regions of high human traffic and is outcompeting the only two flowering plants in Antarctica (Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort)(4). If the non-native bluegrass ends up as the dominant flora of Antarctica, the animals that depend on the endemic flowers may be unable to feed and starve, and this would ultimately throw the food web into complete disarray.
This brings us back to my earlier sentiments. If we close our doors to all forms of tourism to Antarctica, what do we gain? We potentially stop alien species from taking over a foreign land and disrupting the ecosystem, and we potentially prevent littering and human displacement. These are all problems that we need to mitigate. However, looking only at what we gain is half of the story and rather naive — because in preventing Antarctic tourism we prevent actual interaction with the continent. And it is this interaction that facilitates a yearning to understand and conserve. For all we know, we may be preventing the development of future Antarctic conservationists by shutting our doors to the public.
Or, at least, that was my viewpoint before I found some rather alarming information about vacationing to Antarctica and the people that take them. I found that it can cost upwards of $20,000 to make the trek. This immediately rules out a large demographic of travellers — as only the most affluent of adventurers will be able to afford such an expensive ticket. This then led me to believe that the motives of some of these travellers weren’t as virtuous as I originally thought. It turns out that many people lie about their intentions when planning a trip to Antarctica. That is, some travellers stated that their motive for visitation was for scientific, environmental management, or educational purposes — yet upon landing, these patrons made no such effort towards their “primary goal”, some even performed scientific research in areas designated for conservation — demonstrating a blatant disregard for the ecosystem they stand for. In a study published in Environmental Science & Policy, scientists noted that:
“Clearly, substantial amounts of scientific research are undertaken in areas designated for conservation, which may not be in the best interest of the environmental values under protection.”(5)
I’m all for the proliferation of tourism when it promotes education and conservation. But after learning that Antarctica’s primary visitors are affluent travellers who lie about their motives, I can’t help but get a sour taste in my mouth.
Maybe John Oliver was right, they should just go to Alaska. I mean, who would know the difference?
Original story idea: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Don’t Visit Antarctica (HBO). 2014.
- Tourism Statistics – IAATO. http://iaato.org/tourism-statistics
- Sanderson, E.W. et al. (2002) The Human Footprint and the Last of the Wild The human footprint is a global map of human influence on the land surface, which suggests that human beings are stewards of nature, whether we like it or not. BioScience 52, 891–904
- Hunt, L., and S. Ikin. 2014, June 18. Antarctica under threat from human visitors: scientist. Text. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-18/antarctic-tourism-threat-to-the-pristine-wilderness-scientist/5533252
- Molina-Montenegro, M.A. et al. (2012) Occurrence of the Non-Native Annual Bluegrass on the Antarctic Mainland and Its Negative Effects on Native Plants. Conservation Biology 26, 717–723
- Hughes, K.A. et al. (2013) Area protection in Antarctica: How can conservation and scientific research goals be managed compatibly? Environmental Science & Policy 31, 120–132
- Fiske, M. and Said, 2013 at 1:08 Pm Antarctica. , Matt’s Ceramic Action.
- Emperor penguin. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (2015). http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Emperor_penguin&oldid=646190913
- Margerie Glacier Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska – Human and Natural. http://humanandnatural.com/img-margerie-glacier—glacier-bay-national-park,-alaska-6998.htm.