By Brenda Johnson Kame’enui

Imagine being a passenger on expedition to Antarctica on a very large ship. Only Ernest Shackleton and crew could survive the 800-mile journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia in a 22-foot boat in open seas, facing hurricane-force winds, waves up to 100 feet, and frozen spray. No waterproof clothing. No Gore-Tex.

Tour companies have tapped into the growing interest in the last wilderness on earth. The modern-day expedition includes lots of expensive gear, good food and fine wine. Everyone goes on deck to witness the jaw-dropping beauty of this extraordinary land- and seascape. A setting sun offers pink clouds in a blue sky. Mountains and sculptures of ice frame the ink-black sea. It’s astounding, and voyagers snap photographs.

While 97% of climate scientists and probably 97% of the people you know agree that climate change is human caused, many of us haven’t thought much about human-caused degradation to Antarctica, the southern-most continent with no native human population. In the 2022-2023 austral spring, 105,000 people traveled to the continent, up from 44,000 in 2017. About two-thirds of those travelers make landfall.

We know about melting ice and rising seas, but that’s remote to those of us inland, and the scope of the melting is so large, we can’t fathom it. What’s not remote is one person traveling to Antarctica at the cost of 13 tons of CO2 (equivalent to the average family of four living in the UK for a year). Birds and other wildlife are disturbed by large sea vessels and human foot traffic. Left-behind trash is mounting in this pristine environment. Overfishing has caused loss of predator species and habitat.

Travelers’ footsteps affect both ice and soil in this land of seventeen thriving ecoregions, where biosecurity and the threat of introduced species are significant. Clean water and air are critical to the study of Antarctica for many global purposes, including climate. Many Antarctic researchers recognize the region as the canary in a coal mine and encourage travelers and seekers to advocate for this extraordinary wilderness from home. Let’s watch the National Geographic videos.

Sources:
“I Went to Antarctica, and Here’s Why You Shouldn’t,” by Dawn Kelly, Huffington Post; International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO); en.wikipedia.org; www.antarctica.gov.au; www.sciencelearnnz.org