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The Ross Sea, where the Royal Society Range soars 4,200 meters (13,200 feet) above the ice-clogged waters of McMurdo Sound, demonstrates the colossal grandeur for which Antarctica is renowned. It was also the starting point of British expeditions to the South Pole during the so-called heroic era of Antarctic exploration from 1895 to 1915. The early explorers’ wooden huts still dot the coast.
The Ross Ice Shelf, the world’s largest mass of floating ice covering an area almost as big as Spain, rises as steep, gleaming cliffs 60 meters (200 feet) from the sea.
Two cruise ships visited the sea’s Ross Island, connected to the continent by ice, last summer. Summer temperatures average minus 6 degrees Celsius (21 Fahrenheit) but often seem colder due to wind chill.
Passengers visited the largest settlement in Antarctica, the sprawling U.S. McMurdo Station, which can accommodate more than 1,200 people, as well as New Zealand’s neighboring Scott Base, which sleeps fewer than 90. Many also visited a drafty hut built by doomed British explorer Capt. Robert Falcon Scott in 1902 as an expedition base a few hundred meters (yards) from McMurdo Station.
The two bases, separated by a 3-kilometer (2-mile) ice road, don’t facilitate tourism, but tourists are generally welcomed. Both have well-stocked gift shops.
Antarctic New Zealand’s environment manager Neil Gilbert said more robust monitoring is needed to track impacts of tourism.
"The Antarctic Peninsula ... is one of if not the most rapidly warming part of the globe," Gilbert said. "We really don’t know what additional impact that those tourism numbers ... are having on what is already a very significantly changing environment."
There are fears that habitat will be trampled, that tourists will introduce exotic species or microbes or will transfer native flora and fauna to parts of the continent where they never before existed.
A major fear is that a large cruise ship carrying thousands of passengers will run into trouble in these ice-clogged, storm-prone and poorly charted waters, creating an environmentally disastrous oil spill and a humanitarian crisis for the sparsely resourced Antarctic research stations and distant nations to respond to.
To reduce the risk of spills, the United Nations’ shipping agency, the International Maritime Organization, barred the use of heavy fuel oil below 60 degrees latitude south in 2011.
That was a blow to operators of large cruise ships. Steve Wellmeier, administrative director of the tour operators group, said the ban initially slashed cruise passenger numbers by two-thirds.
But it was only a temporary obstacle to industry growth; large ocean liners can comply with the ban by using lighter distillate fuels in Antarctic waters. About 9,900 passengers are believed to have visited Antarctica on large cruise ships is the season now ending, double the total from 2011-12.
The fuel-oil ban is a rare thing for Antarctic tourism: a binding rule.
The 28 countries that comprise the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Committee have made 27 non-binding recommendations on tourism since 1966, but just two mandatory rules — and neither of those are yet in force.
A 2004 agreement requiring tourism operators to be insured to cover possible rescue operations or medical evacuations has been ratified by only 11 of the 28 countries. A 2009 agreement barring ships carrying more than 500 passengers from landing tourists — a measure to protect trampled sites — has the legal backing of just two countries, Japan and Uruguay.
The United States, by far the biggest source of tourists and tourism operators, has not signed either measure.
The International Maritime Organization intends to enforce a Polar Code, detailing safety standards for ships entering both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. It was supposed to be force by 2013, but the IMO now says it won’t be adopted before 2014, and after that it will take another 18 months for the code to be implemented.
Hemmings said the current lack of standards is a problem because increasing numbers of cruise ships are negotiating the poorly charted and storm-prone seas without ice-strengthened hulls as Antarctic legs are added to South American, South Pacific and around-the-world cruises.
Those ships "are not necessarily ice-strengthened, or if they are ice-strengthened, are not ice-strengthened to a high standard because at other times of the year they’re doing something different," Hemmings said.
Wellmeier, the industry group official, said the impending rules could knock some currently operating vessels out of Antarctica. In any case, he said he doesn’t think tourism there will return to the explosive growth rates of the years before the financial crisis, simply because the ships needed for such expansion are not available.
Tourists far outnumber the scientists and support staff at national scientific research stations in Antarctica during the peak summer season, though the researchers make more of an impact because they stay longer. The summer population at the 39 stations across the continent peaked at about 4,400 in the 2011-12 year.Next Page >
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