I remember staring up at the huge map of the world in my geography classes at school and seeing Antarctica represented as a featureless white strip of land running along the bottom of the world.
It was only much later did I appreciate how immense the white continent actually is and recognise it as truly a land of superlatives.
Antarctica is the highest, windiest and coldest continent on earth. At 14 million-square kilometres it is one and a half times the size of the United States and its ice cap contains 70% of the world’s freshwater and 90% of the world’s ice. Only 2% of the continent is bare rock and ice-free. Locked up in this 4km deep ice sheet is a crucial record of the past 500,000 years climate change of our planet providing a vital archive to support our understanding of the global changes affecting the Earth.
Climate change is already having an impact on the Antarctic environment, particularly in the Antarctic Peninsula region which is one of the fastest warming areas on Earth with an average rise of 3 degrees Celsius in the last 60 years.
While the Arctic is essentially an ocean surrounded by continents, Antarctica is a continent surrounded oceans – in this case the enormous body of water known as the Southern Ocean. It is considered the heart of the world’s oceans because it is the driver of the rest of the world’s oceanic and atmospheric systems. It is also an essential ecosystem for the survival of the abundant wildlife found in its waters. Antarctica is rightly famous for the huge numbers of penguins, whales and seals but the region is, in fact, home to 10,000 species many of which can be found nowhere else on Earth. For humans, this icy and remote region is still seen as an incredibly inhospitable place and it comes as no surprise to learn that it is less than 200 years since the first person set foot on the continent.
There is no doubt Antarctica is indeed a fantastic tourist destination and the opportunities to visit have never been greater but with that opportunity comes responsibility. In the early years of Antarctic tourism, over 40 years ago now, there was a philosophy of ‘you can’t protect what you don’t know’. This season an estimated 37,000 tourists will visit the region though a quarter of those will never actually land. Visitor numbers in those early years were maybe a few thousand each season, today those numbers could be matched in just a single cruise. The large ‘Love Boat’ cruise ships have been visiting Antarctica for some years now but the huge numbers of passengers on each cruise ship make it logistically impossible to ferry them ashore in rubber boats for shore landings. Environmentally, this ‘cruise-by’ experience is arguably beneficial as it reduces the ‘footprint’ people leave behind in one of the most pristine places remaining on the planet. The expedition-style cruises which do offer their passengers zodiac cruises and shore landings adhere closely to the guidance laid down by the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators. Passengers are incredibly informed with mandatory briefings on board and, for the most part, are totally engaged in preserving Antarctica for those that visit after them. A key part of these cruises is a shore trip to one of the international research stations to gain an understanding of the scientific work going on there.
People only ever ‘visit’ Antarctica as it has no native population. These visits can range from anything to a 10 day cruise to the Antarctic Peninsula all the way up to a multi-year placement in one of the research stations – so Antarctica does have an army of voices. It is the hope of all its custodians – scientists, expedition staff and ship’s crew – that their passengers go on to become passionate ambassadors, both financially and through advocacy, for the protection of this beautiful, frozen kingdom.