The Impact of Visitors
doesn't have any "residents" everyone who goes is a visitor for a short
time. There are two groups of visitors who can have an impact on Antarctica, tourists
and those who go as part of a national Antarctic programme.
In terms of numbers, tourists greatly outnumber
national programme personnel 47,225 as against 5,000 in the peak season so far
in 2006/2007. This led to a call for
tourist numbers to be limited as that figure was up 14% on the previous year.
Very large ships do not now go to
Antarctica. These used to account for large numbers of the
counted tourists as they carried so many passengers. They
tended not to make any landings and only made a fleeting
visit of 2 or 3 days out of a longer wider ranging cruise.
These large ships were a great concern as an incident
involving an oil or fuel spill from them would have been
very significant. Any kind of rescue or evacuation would
also have been very difficult owing to the large numbers of
people on board.
The most recent figures for the 2011-12 season show that there were
26,509 visitors. The national programme personnel
clock up far more man-days however, and impacts are difficult to compare
directly. This figure will probably be the peak visitor number for some time
to come (see "Larger Ships" below).
While tourists may only only spend a relatively small
time on landings, it is by its nature relatively "high-impact" time - compared to
a scientist or electrician say who probably spend most of their time on a permanent
or semi-permanent base. Tourists also, by their nature will want to visit the most
picturesque and wildlife rich areas of Antarctica, and they tend to do so in numbers
far greater than the entire compliment of many Antarctic bases.
Those national programmes
that are supplied by ship (as the majority are) have relatively few visits of those
ships, whereas in the season, the great majority of all shipping activity in Antarctica
is of tour ships. There have been accidents with ships being grounded on uncharted
rocks and there have been oil-spills. With the best safe-guards in the world (and
it has to be said that marine regulations for Antarctic ships, both statuary and
self-imposed are as good as they get) the more ships there are, the more accidents
there will be.
Tourism in Antarctica is at present self-regulated
International Association of Antarctic
Tour Operators (IAATO). This is an organization that applies strict guidelines
to its member tour operators and ships. Such guidelines limit the size of the ships
that can cruise Antarctic waters and also how many people can be landed at sites
around Antarctica. So far IAATO is perceived as being successful in its aims and
in regulation for Antarctic protection - though there are always those who would
have no tourism at all.
threat comes from smaller expeditions that are becoming increasingly common
by individuals and small parties.
Antarctica requires careful planning and a series of fail-safe rescue
procedures if anyone gets into difficulty. These smaller expeditions often
fail to do this adequately and resort to "humanitarian" requests for aid
from shipping or nearby national bases when they get into
difficulty. In recent years for example
a small helicopter crashed into the sea off the Antarctic Peninsula requiring rescue
and an attempt to fly across Antarctica via the pole in a small aircraft ended by
the aircraft crashing and the pilot being rescued by nearby base personnel.
There is no
guarantee that derelict or crashed vehicles left by private expeditioners will be
removed from Antarctica as they should be.
In 2009 the IMO (International Maritime
Organization) approved an amendment to MARPOL (International Convention for
the Prevention of Pollution from Ships - MARPOL being short for Marine
Pollution) banning the use and carriage of heavy and intermediate fuel oils
for all shipping in the Antarctic Treaty Area.
This ban will largely affect large
cruise ships that operate "cruise-only" tourism. These ships carry 500+
passengers and don't offer landings in Antarctica. As a result of this overall tourism numbers for the 2011-12 austral summer was 26,509
(down from 47,225 in 2006-2007) with the difference due
largely to the large passenger ships leaving the Antarctic
These larger ships have long posed the
biggest potential threat to Antarctica from fuel leaks as they carry so much
and from potential sinking's, if they no longer sail to Antarctica the risk
is reduced greatly especially as they are not ice-strengthened.
Fortunately there have been no major
pollution incidents or losses of life in Antarctica as a result of tourism,
though there was a very close call in November 2007 with the holing and
subsequent sinking by an iceberg of the M/V Explorer in the Bransfield
Fortunately for the passengers and crew of the Explorer the collision
occurred in calm conditions, so everyone was able to get off the ship
safely and into lifeboats. It was doubly fortunate as having done so,
they found that some of the boats were inadequate in that they were open
and not large enough for all on board to sit down and 3 out of 4 of the
powered boats engines didn't work.
The passengers and crew spent
about 4 hours in the lifeboats before being rescued by other cruise
ships in the area, about 15 hours after this the ship sank in around
1,500m (4,920 feet) of water. This despite the ship having an
experienced captain and crew and having a double-reinforced hull to
withstand submerged ice.
The ship sank carrying approximately
178m3 of diesel, 24m3 of lube oil and 1,200 L of
gasoline. A surface oil slick 1.5km long and covering 2.5km2
was reported by the Chilean Navy a few days afterwards which grew to
about 5km2 though this represents only a few cubic
meters of oil. Further slicks were seen in the days following implying
there was a slow leak from one or more tanks.
While the lower
temperatures in the Antarctic mean that spills may persist longer than
in warmer climates, it seems that the generally rougher seas help to
disperse spills more quickly. The Explorer was well away from the
nearest land, so the slick was dispersed before it came ashore.
The factors of a relatively small ship, calm weather and sinking in deep
water well away from land meant that this shipwreck was no-where near as
damaging as it might have been for the people involved and also for the
environment - these factors however were as much to do with luck as was
the ship hitting an iceberg that holed her in the first place.
Full investigation report
- 97 pages, 5.8Mb