Sure, You Can Go to Antarctica (but Here’s Why You Shouldn’t)

Sure, You Can Go to Antarctica (but Here’s Why You Shouldn’t)
Photo: Matt Berger, Shutterstock

Over the past few years, a trip to Antarctica has gone from “rare and treacherous expedition” to “mainstream vacation.” However, as numerous sources have pointed out — see this New York Times report, or this 2014 John Oliver segment — the rise in tourism to Antarctica is a serious threat to the environment.

Still, when you search “reasons not to go to Antarctica,” you’ll find travel sites encouraging you to go, or sardonic travel bloggers pretending not to encourage you to go. Ecotourism is trendy, and besides, I understand the gut urge to visit the most remote continent on earth. However, the negative impact of human visitors to Antarctica may be even more grave than previously thought. Whether you’re an adventure-seeker booking your next thrill, or you’re planning an escape from the turmoil of your current continent, here’s why you should rethink your Antarctic voyage, according to science.

New research confirms negative impact of human visitors

Research published in Nature Communications this week finds that the areas surrounding research facilities and popular tourist sites have considerably above-average amounts of black carbon; the result of this is snow melting and shrinking even faster than with the existing backdrop of climate change threatening the area.

According to Science Alert, this research “confirms similar studies elsewhere around the role of black carbon emissions in accelerating ice and snow melt,” showing that the impact of human activity is “more pervasive and insidious” than they appear on a surface level. When human visits to Antarctica were extremely rare, it was more difficult to quantify their impact. Now, as Antarctica becomes a mainstream tourist destination, we can’t ignore the science: Our carbon footprint ruins everything.

Visitors only add pressure to a region that is already straining under the effects of climate change. As such, travel to the continent is limited thanks to the combined efforts of the Antarctic Treaty, IAATO, Antarctica tour operators, and Antarctic ambassadors. But if you already have your voyage planned, there are guidelines in place to make sure you minimise your environmental footprint.

How to minimise the impact of your Antarctica trip

In addition to the study published this week, there are numerous ways that tourism can threaten to Antarctica’s fragile ecosystems. Keep in mind the following site visitor guidelines set by the Antarctic Treaty parties in order to minimise your environmental footprint:

1) Do not use aircraft, vessels, small boats, or other means of transport in ways that disturb wildlife, either at sea or on land.

2) Do not feed, touch, or handle birds or seals, or approach or photograph them in ways that cause them to alter their behaviour.

3) Do not damage plants, for example by walking, driving, or landing on extensive moss beds or lichen-covered scree slopes.

4) Do not use guns or explosives. Keep noise to the minimum to avoid frightening wildlife.

5) Do not bring non-native plants or animals into the Antarctic (e.g. live poultry, pet dogs and cats, house plants).

The bottom line about the South Pole

Believe me, I get the desire to travel to Antarctica; there’s the indescribable beauty of the landscape, the combination of both thrill and solitude, and the ability to say you’ve been to the most remote places on the planet. Plus, you could argue that travel of any kind has a disruptive, carbon-emitting impact — especially when that travel involves a large plane or boat. But at least other travel destinations have a local economy that benefits from your tourism. This is not the case for Antarctica. As travel to the continent becomes increasingly accessible, the threat to Antarctica’s fragile ecosystems becomes harder to justify at all.

In the meantime, I recommend you scratch that Antarctic itch by watching this Our Planet episode from Netflixthis “Storming Antarctica” episode from Natural Geographic, or maybe even a “Best Antarctic Animal Moments” compilation from the BBC.

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