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Impacts of tourism in Antarctica

Human impacts in Antarctica — Australian Antarctic Division

Growth of tourism in

Antarctica is often thought of as a pristine land untouched by human disturbance. Unfortunately this is no longer the case. For a little more than 100 years people have been travelling to Antarctica and in that short time most parts have been visited and we have left more than just footprints.

Human impacts include:

  • harvesting some Antarctic species to the verge of extinction for economic benefit,
  • killing and disturbing other species,
  • contaminating the soils, and
  • discharging sewage to the sea and leaving rubbish, cairns and tracks in even the most remote parts.

Changing attitudes

More recently attitudes have changed as we begin to realise that there are few unvisited places left on Earth and that they are of enormous value to humanity. The clean air, water and ice of Antarctica are now of global importance to science for understanding how the Earth's environment is changing both naturally and as a result of human activity. Tourist operators are beginning to tap into the huge demand to visit the last great wilderness on Earth. Paradoxically both science and tourism have the potential to damage the very qualities that draw them to Antarctica.

Scales of environmental impacts in Antarctica

Environmental impacts in Antarctica occur at a range of spatial scales.

  • At the largest scale are the effects in Antarctica of planet-wide impacts such as global warming, ozone depletion and global contamination caused by the application of technology elsewhere in the world.
  • More localised, but still with the potential to cause region-wide effects, are the impacts of fishing and hunting. Mining is now prohibited under the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty (known as the Madrid Protocol).
  • More localised still are the impacts of visitors, such as scientists or tourists, to the region.

Global impacts of the industrial world show in Antarctica

Global change may adversely affect the Antarctic environment and its fauna and flora. For example, global warming may contribute to the break-up of large areas of ice-shelf and cause loss of habitat for animals dependent on the ice-shelf; increasing UV radiation may cause changes to phytoplankton communities, with impacts occurring up the food chain.

Global change may also bring about changes in Antarctica that could have serious environmental consequences elsewhere in the world, for example changes in the amount of water locked up in Antarctic ice may contribute to global sea level change.

Finally, the Antarctic region is a sensitive indicator of global change. The polar ice cap holds within it a record of past atmospheres that go back hundreds of thousands of years, allowing study of the earth's natural climate cycles against which the significance of recent changes can be judged.

Impacts of hunting and fishing

Hunting for whales and seals drew people to the Antarctic in the early years of the 19th century and within only a few decades caused major crashes in wildlife populations. The Antarctic fur seal was at the verge of extinction at many locations by 1830, resulting in a decline in the sealing industry although sealing continued at a smaller scale well into the last century.


The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Seals (CCAS) was initiated in response to concerns that the sealing industry could be re-opened after some exploratory research to investigate the viability of sealing in the 1960s. Although commercial sealing did not recommence, the CCAS did establish a regime for sealing providing for permissible catch limits for crabeater, leopard and Weddell seals, a zoning system with closed seasons and total protection for Ross seals, southern elephant seals and certain species of fur seal. However, under Australian law Australians would not be granted a permit for commercial sealing in the Antarctic Treaty area.

The seal populations of Macquarie Island have been protected by the island’s status as a wildlife sanctuary since 1933. The seals of Australia’s subantarctic islands were further protected in 1997 when both Macquarie and the Heard and McDonald Islands were added to the World Heritage list. The exploited seal populations of the Southern Ocean have in recent years recovered very substantially and are no longer endangered.


Whaling in the Southern Ocean began in earnest in the early 1900s and grew very quickly so that by 1910 it provided 50% of the world's catch. The history of whaling is a repeated sequence of targeting the most profitable species, depleting stocks to unviable commercial levels and moving on to previously less favoured species. Declining catches motivated international attempts to regulate whaling and led to the establishment of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which first met in 1949. For many years the IWC had little success as an organisation that was established to manage whales as a sustainable resource, however falling profits did succeed in driving many companies out of the whaling business.

In the 1960s the IWC became more effective when blue and humpback whales were fully protected; protection was extended to fin and sei whales in the 1970s and in 1986 the IWC decided to suspend all commercial whaling. Since the moratorium was initiated, whaling has been limited to one or two countries that harvest whales under the ‘scientific whaling’ provisions set by the IWC. There are some indications that whale populations are beginning to recover but such long-lived species with low reproductive rates are incapable of rebuilding their numbers in just a few years.


Fishing is the only large-scale commercial resource harvest currently undertaken in the Antarctic Treaty area now that sealing has effectively ceased an whaling has significantly decreased. The major negative effects of fisheries are:

  • potential for over-fishing of target species
  • effects on predator populations dependant on the target species as a food source
  • mortality of non-target species caught by fishing equipment
  • destruction of habitat
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