It’s a land of many hazards, not all of them obvious. The dry air makes static electricity a constant threat to electronics and a fire risk when refueling vehicles. Residents quickly get into the habit of touching metal fixtures as they pass, and metal discharge plates are set beside all telephones and computer keyboards.
Most tourists arrive on the Antarctic Peninsula, which is easily accessible from Argentina and Chile. The next most popular destination is the Ross Sea on the opposite side of the continent, a 10-day sail from New Zealand or Australia.
Both landscapes are intensely bright and profoundly silent during the 17 weeks between sunrise and sunset in the summer. The peninsula is a milder environment and has a wider variety of fauna and flora.
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 but 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.