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Antarctic tourism impacts

Human Impacts on Antarctica and Threats to the Environment - Overview

Eight tourists in an

Antarctica is certainly the most pristine place on earth although it is not as unspoiled as may be imagined. For more than a hundred years people have travelled to Antarctica and most parts have now been visited. More than just footprints have been left and more than just photographs have been taken.

Some Antarctic species have been taken to the verge of extinction for economic benefit. Others have been killed incidentally or disturbed, soils have been contaminated, untreated sewage has been discharged into the sea and rubbish that will not decompose or break down for hundreds of years has been left behind in even the remotest parts.

Recently attitudes have changed as we begin to realise that there are few untouched and unvisited places left on earth and that they are tremendously important to humanity.

Antarctica's clean air, water and ice of are of importance to science for understanding how the Earth's environment is changing both naturally and as a result of human activity. Tour operators are tapping a huge and ever increasing demand to visit the Earth's last great wilderness.

Both science and tourism have the potential to damage the very qualities that draw them to Antarctica.

The concern for the environmental management of Antarctica is how to make good past damage and how to reduce the current and future impacts.

The main threats facing Antarctica:

In approximate order of the assessed threat as of 2014

  • 1 - Climate change / Global warming, resulting in a warming of the sea and loss of sea ice and land-based ice, this is greatest long-term threat to the region. Already some ice shelves have collapsed and ice slopes and glaciers have retreated. Oceanic acidification (from extra dissolved carbon dioxide) is already leading to the loss of some marine snails thought to have a significant part to play in the oceanic carbon cycle. The breeding populations and ranges of some penguin species have been altered.

    2 - Fishing, both legal and illegal. Much of the world's oceans are over-fished, the chances are that if investments into the kinds of boats and fishing gear needed for Antarctica are made, then it too will suffer this same fate. Fishing for krill could be particularly significant as these are at the bottom of many Antarctic food chains. There are already illegal fishing boats that ignore current regulations.

    3 - Invasive species. Organisms that are not native to Antarctica are being taken there on ships, attached as seeds to boots and clothing. Some of these that are able to now survive there as a consequence of global warming. Rats in particular are a threat to Antarctica's ground nesting birds which are particularly vulnerable as there are no native ground based predators for them to be experienced in defending themselves against.

    4 - Tourism, with the accompanying pollutants that accompany ships and aircraft, the possibility of oil spills and the effects of lots of people and infrastructure on wildlife and the wider environment.

    5 - Pollution, CFC's and other ozone depletors are responsible for the ozone hole that has appeared over Antarctica for over 30 years, chemicals produced thousands of miles away are found in Antarctic ice and in the bodies of wildlife. Discarded equipment, chemicals and oil can degrade the landscape. Fishing nets, plastic, lines, hooks etc. carried by the sea can result in great suffering or loss of life by birds, fish and marine mammals.

    7 - Exploration and exploitation of mineral reserves, oil and gas. Not currently economically viable, but as the need becomes greater and as technology advances, this will become an increasing threat. The Antarctic Treaty bans all mining and mineral exploitation indefinitely, though this comes up for review in 2048 (in other words, it isn't really banned indefinitely at all).

    8 - Direct impacts associated with the development of infrastructure for scientific bases and programmes. The construction of buildings and related facilities such as roads, fuel storage, runways etc.

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