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On the southernmost continent, you can see enormous stretches of wind-sculpted ice that seem carved from marble, and others that are smooth and green as emerald. You can see icebergs, whales, emperor penguins. Visitors have described the place as otherworldly, magical, and majestic. The light, Jon Krakauer has said, is so ravishing, “you get drugged by it.”
Travelers are drawn to Antarctica for what they can find there—the wildlife, the scenery, the sense of adventure—and for what they can’t: cars, buildings, cell towers. They talk about the overwhelming silence. The Norwegian explorer Erling Kagge called it “the quietest place I have ever been.”
All of these attractions are getting harder to find in the rest of the world. They’re disappearing in Antarctica too. The continent is melting; whole chunks are prematurely tumbling into the ocean. And more people than ever are in Antarctica because tourism is on a tear.
Four decades ago, the continent saw only a few hundred visitors each summer. More than 100,000 people traveled there this past season, the majority arriving on cruises. In the context of a land this size, that number may not sound like a lot. It’s roughly the capacity of Michigan Stadium, or about the attendance of the CES tech conference back in January.
But it’s also a record—and a 40 percent jump over 2019–20, the season before the coronavirus pandemic brought Antarctic travel to a near standstill. And although scientists who visit the continent to study its life and demise have a clear place here, many sightseers bring a whiff of “last-chance tourism”—a desire to see a place before it’s gone, even if that means helping hasten its disappearance. Perversely, the climate change that imperils Antarctica is making the continent easier to visit; melting sea ice has extended the cruising season. Travel companies are scrambling to add capacity. Cruise lines have launched several new ships over the past couple of years. Silversea’s ultra-luxurious Silver Endeavour is being used for “fast-track” trips—time-crunched travelers can save a few days by flying directly to Antarctica in business class.
Overtourism isn’t a new story. But Antarctica, designated as a global commons, is different from any other place on Earth. It’s less like a too-crowded national park and more like the moon, or the geographical equivalent of an uncontacted people. It is singular, and in its relative wildness and silence, it is the last of its kind. And because Antarctica is different, we should treat it differently: Let the last relatively untouched landscape stay that way.
Traveling to Antarctica is a carbon-intensive activity. Flights and cruises must cross thousands of miles in extreme conditions, contributing to the climate change that is causing ice loss and threatening whales, seals, and penguins. By one estimate, the carbon footprint for a person’s Antarctic cruise can be roughly equivalent to the average European’s output for a year, because cruise ships are heavy polluters and tourists have to fly so far. Almost all travel presents this problem on some level. But “this kind of tourism involves a larger carbon footprint than other kinds of tourism,” says Yu-Fai Leung, a professor in the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University who has done extensive research on Antarctic travel.
Antarctic tourism also directly imperils an already fragile ecosystem. Soot deposits from ship engines accelerate snow melting. Hikes can damage flora that take well over a decade to regrow in the harsh environment. Humans risk introducing disease and invasive species. Their very presence, North Carolina State scientists have shown, stresses out penguins, and could affect the animals’ breeding.
Yet as tourism gets more popular, companies are competing to offer high-contact experiences that are more exciting than gazing at glaciers from the deck of a ship. Last year, for instance, a company named White Desert opened its latest luxury camp in Antarctica. Its sleeping domes, roughly 60 miles from the coast, are perched near an emperor-penguin colony and can be reached only by private jet. Guests, who pay at least $65,000 a stay, are encouraged to explore the continent by plane, Ski-Doos, and Arctic truck before enjoying a gourmet meal whose ingredients are flown in from South Africa.
All of this adds up. A recent study found that less than a third of the continent is still “pristine,” with no record of any human visitation. Those untouched areas don’t include Antarctica’s most biodiverse areas; like wildlife—and often because of wildlife—people prefer to gather in places that aren’t coated in ice. As more tourists arrive, going deeper into the continent to avoid other tourists and engage in a wider range of activities, those virgin areas will inevitably shrink.
The international community has banned mining on the continent, and ships aren’t allowed to use heavy fuel oil in its waters. Yet tourism is still only loosely regulated. “I think it’s fair to say the rules are just not good enough,” Tim Stephens, a professor at the University of Sydney who specializes in international law, told me. There’s no single central source of governance for tourism. The Antarctic Treaty System imposes broad environmental restrictions on the continent. Individual governments have varying laws that regulate operators, ships, and aircraft. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators has extensive guidelines it requires its members to follow, out of genuine concern and, perhaps, to ward off more rigorous outside regulation.
Gina Greer, IAATO’s executive director, says the organization is proactive about protecting Antarctica. Visitors are asked to keep a distance from wildlife, decontaminate their shoes to keep novel bugs and bacteria at bay, stay on established paths, and more. Because tour operators visit the same sites repeatedly, they can spot changes in the landscape or wildlife populations and notify scientists.
This spring, IAATO added a new slow zone—an area where ships have to reduce their speed to 10 knots because whales have been congregating there in greater numbers—to those implemented in 2019. “It’s amazing to see how members come together and make decisions that may be difficult but are necessary,” Greer told me.
Still, these are all essentially voluntary behaviors. And some operators don’t belong to IAATO.
Accidents also have a way of happening despite the best intentions. In 2007, the MS Explorer, a 250-foot expedition cruise ship, sank near penguin breeding grounds on the South Shetland Islands, leaving behind a wreck and a mile-long oil slick. Most cruise ships are registered in what Stephens calls “flag-convenient countries” that are lax on oversight. “If you have a cruise ship going down in Antarctica, it’s not going to be the same seriousness as the Exxon Valdez,” he said. “But it’s not going to be pretty.”
To reduce crowding and environmental pressure, modern-day tourists have been asked to think twice about visiting a slew of alluring places: Venice, Bali, Big Sur. But the calculus can get complicated—in almost any destination, you have locals who are trying to improve (or just sustain) their lot.
Most of the Maldives, for instance, lies just a meter above sea level. “Climate change is an existential threat,” Aminath Shauna, the minister of environment, climate change, and technology, said in an interview with the IMF in 2021. “There’s no higher ground we can run to.”
Within decades, the decadent overwater bungalows that the islands are known for could be underwater bungalows. But more than a quarter of the country’s GDP comes from tourism. So this year, the Maldives hopes to welcome 1.8 million tourists—all of whom can reach it only by plane or boat rides that indirectly contribute to rising seas.
That conflict doesn’t exist in Antarctica. With no human residents, it’s the rare place that still belongs to nature, as much as that’s possible. It is actually most valuable to us when left wild, so that it can continue to act as a buffer against climate change, a storehouse of the world’s fresh water, and a refuge for birds, whales, seals, fish, and even the krill that the entire marine ecosystem depends on.
Some argue that tourists become ambassadors for the continent—that is, for its protection and for environmental change. That’s laudable, but unsupported by research, which has shown that in many cases Antarctic tourists become ambassadors for more tourism.
Antarctica doesn’t need ambassadors; it needs guardians. Putting this land off-limits would signify how fragile and important—almost sacred—it is. Putting it at risk to give deep-pocketed tourists a sense of awe is simply not worth it.
We have more than a continent—or even our planet—at stake. The treaties that govern Antarctica helped lay the foundation for space agreements. Space is already crowded and junked up with human-made debris. Tourism will only add to the problem; experts are warning that it is intensely polluting and could deplete the ozone layer. If we can’t jointly act to put Antarctica off limits, our view of the moon may eventually be marred. Imagine a SpaceX–branded glamping resort, or a Blue Origin oasis stocked entirely by Amazon’s space-delivery business.
As a species, we’re not very good at self-restraint (see: AI). And these days, few arenas exist where individual decisions make a difference. Antarctica could be one of them. Maybe, despite our deepest impulses to explore, we can leave one place in the world alone.
This story is part of the Atlantic Planet series supported by HHMI’s Science and Educational Media Group.