In April 2009, a joint session of the Antarctic Treaty panel and its sister organization, the Arctic Council, met in Baltimore, Md. The agenda included talks on global warming and shipping routes, but also included some questions about tourism. Around the same time the session met, a 25-mile (40-kilometer) wide Antarctic ice shelf broke off and shattered into the sea. Scientists blame global warming. And as more ice melts and separates, Antarctica will become smaller and smaller [source: Doyle]. Less ice equals more water, which allows big cruise ships to enter areas they previously weren't able to access.
Concerned about the environmental and safety impacts of rising Antarctic tourism rates, several countries are considering establishing regulations on tourism in the Antarctic area. Some of these regulations would include:
- Banning the construction of tourist accommodations
- Limiting the number of ships and landings allowed per year
- Restrictions on how close cruise ships may come to shore
- Ensuring all tourist vessels are safe
Currently, most large cruise ships don't have strengthened hulls that can withstand striking an iceberg. Besides the potential loss of human life in a ship accident, a massive fuel spill could be catastrophic to the ecosystem.
Shipwrecks can and do happen in the Antarctic. Since 2007, four ships have run aground in Antarctica. Running aground can cause a ship to leak fuel and it puts passengers in jeopardy. All passengers on these ships evacuated to new boats without injury. In November 2007, a ship called the M.S. Explorer hit an iceberg and sank within 24 hours. Passengers shivered in lifeboats for hours before rescue arrived from a Norwegian cruise ship. Experts say that it's only a matter of time before an accident claims hundreds of lives. Because Antarctica is so remote, options for search and rescue are extremely limited.
You might be wondering why the signatories of the Antarctic Treaty don't just ban visitors to Antarctica altogether. One of the most important terms of the Antarctic Treaty is that it allows freedom of access. No one can stop people from going to Antarctica. However, they're hoping to manage the process so it's beneficial to all -- the tourists, the wildlife and Antarctica itself.