Cosmos Briefing: Accessing Antarctica

Remote and wild, Antarctica was once solely the domain of hardcore explorers. As the continent becomes more accessible, science and tourism are expanding – but does this come with an environmental cost? Should access to these fragile ecosystems be regulated, and who gets to decide?

In our recent Cosmos Briefing, experts on Antarctica discussed the balance between conservation, science and tourism on the frozen continent.

The session, hosted by Professor Alan Duffy – the Royal Institution of Australia’s lead scientist – featured Professor Steven L Chown, Dr Jaimie Cleeland, and Greg Mortimer.

“There are 70 permanent bases in and around Antarctica now, and that’s the result of 54 countries that are signatories to the Antarctic Treaty System,” says Mortimer, a scientist and mountaineer who became the first Australian to climb Antarctica’s highest peak, Vinson Massif, in 1988.

These bases are largely for scientific research.

Chown, Monash University researcher and the Director of Securing Antarctica’s Environmental Future, explains that the frozen continent is a crucial place to do science – because what happens there will severely impact the rest of the world.

“Antarctica is essentially a continent that’s covered in ice, and that ice most profoundly has about 57 metres of global sea level rise in it, were it to melt,” he says.

In the short term, out to 2100, scientists predict that Antarctic ice melt could contribute anywhere from 28 centimetres to two metres of global sea level rise.

“That immediately gives you the idea of why the science is being done, because there’s this huge uncertainty,” Chown says.

But beyond ice dynamics, Antarctica is an unparalleled place to conduct research in other areas – including astronomy and the evolution of life, especially in extreme conditions.

Cleeland is a scientist at the Australian Antarctic Division, researching how wildlife populations are impacted by human-driven stressors such as fisheries, climate change, and invasive species.

“All the Antarctic scientists that I know and work with, what they’re doing is feeding this critical science into these conservation outcomes and policy outcomes that are really important for us all on a global scale,” she says.

Cleeland has lived and worked on four different Australian bases on the continent, and acknowledges that scientific activities do have an ecological footprint.

“There’s a huge consideration to our environmental impact,” she says, including shipping most waste from Antarctica back to Australia to be recycled or disposed of. “There’s a big effort to make sure Antarctica is left in pristine condition when working on those stations.”

But scientists aren’t the only ones who have an impact on Antarctica.

Mortimer, who also co-founded the adventure cruise company Aurora Expeditions, points out that the largest number of people visiting Antarctica are tourists, who want to experience the continent’s “other-worldliness” – it’s “as much as you can imagine being in outer space as you can find on Earth”.

“They’re largely shipborne arrivals,” he says. “In the 2019-20 season, there were about 74,000 people visiting Antarctica as tourists.”

This is more than 10 times the number of scientists who visit the continent.

But Mortimer notes that there is a framework of behaviour and environmental standards around tourism: “Each company going to Antarctica carrying people as tourists has had to jump through hoops, through an environmental impact statement, to prove their worth.”

Mortimer and Cleeland agree that if not managed correctly, tourism can have an impact on the environment. But it’s also an educative process, and most tourists take home messages of conservation.

“I can really see tourism being a great facilitator of advocacy,” Cleeland says. “It also can directly support science and conservation – I have some wandering albatross currently travelling around the Southern Ocean carrying tracking devices for me. And those tracking devices were directly funded through tourism – people that were inspired by the wildlife that they were seeing.”

But who regulates tourism and science?

Chown explains that the Antarctic Treaty came into effect in 1959, which forms the foundation for the regulation of activities in the Antarctic, followed by the Madrid Protocol on environmental protection in 1998.

“That really has a very stringent environmental protection component to it,” he says. “It’s the protocol itself, plus six annexes that deal with things like marine pollution and fauna and flora – and, of course, protected areas.”

But in 2048 the Madrid Protocol will be open for discussion again – so what will the continent look like then?

“I’m by nature an optimist,” Cleeland says. “I hope…those collaborations and the environmental protocols around that become stronger, and I hope that Antarctica can – if we get our act together – look something like it does look right now.”

Mortimer, also an optimist, says: “I like to think that the consensus of international opinion that is formulated in and around the Antarctic Treaty System – and that covers tourism – gives us an extraordinary platform to go forward into the coming decades.”

The big unknown is climate change: “That’s more likely to be the significant change, rather than the boots on the ground human interaction that we see, whether it’s science or tourism.”

Chown says that if the world adheres to the Paris Climate Agreement, “then we look forward to a very significantly similar future in the Antarctic to what we have now. If we can’t do that, then it’s actually quite uncertain what the path forward will be.”

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