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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

An Antarctic tourism boom is bad for all of us, even those who can’t afford the cruise

Stay away from those penguins


If you’ve been active on TikTok lately, there’s a chance that you’ve seen a unique type of video popping up on your feed — namely, videos of people setting off on giant cruise ships to visit Antarctica. This niche genre showcases the life of those aboard these ships as they make the journey to the southernmost continent, documenting everything from seasickness to wildlife sightings.

Antarctica has long been an enigmatic area of the world because of its pristine frozen conditions. It is the only continent that is not and never has been inhabited by humans. Instead, the icy kingdom is ruled by an assortment of largely aquatic organisms, including penguins and seals, and a handful of visiting research teams. There are no modern comforts (i.e. indoor plumbing) waiting to welcome weary travelers. Rationally, Antarctica should not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of tourist destinations — unless, of course, you arrive via the modern comfort of a cruise ship. 

In recent years the continent has become just that: a “hot” new attraction. The number of tourists arriving in Antarctica has been rapidly increasing since the 1990s, with the 2022-23 season seeing a record high of 104,897 visitors, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Most of these visitors arrive via cruise ship, often advertised as the cheaper and more comfortable option, though some make the trip by plane. 

These trips tend to last anywhere from 10 to 24 days — an incredibly brief time compared to even the most short-term Antarctic research contracts (three months). This stands in contrast to the length and intensity of the journey needed to make it there. Let’s say you wanted to make the trip from San Francisco to Antarctica. First, you’d have to take a roughly 24-hour flight to Ushuaia, Argentina, where most Antarctic cruise vessels depart from. You’d then be on said ship for two to three days to arrive (depending on the charter company and conditions of the sea). 

There’s also always the possibility that your voyage will be marked by intense swells and unsafe conditions — what some dub the “Drake Shake” — as you cut through the Drake Passage. Then, you’ll be in Antarctica (yippee). Before you know it, you’ll turn around and do it all again. 

All in all, this treacherous journey will have cost you anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 and about 4.14 tons of carbon emissions — the same amount you (as an average person) would have otherwise produced in a year. 

Some argue that tourism to Antarctica can have a positive impact, as the striking landscape can leave a lasting impression on travelers who will then return to their normal lives inspired to support conservation efforts for those cute little penguins that they saw on their great expedition. However, this logic is seriously flawed, as it fails to take into account the environmental impact tourism has on the region.    

A single large cruise ship can produce nearly four times the amount of CO2 per passenger mile than a plane. These are extremely alarming numbers to be putting up during a period in time marked by devastating impacts from unprecedented anthropogenic climate change. 

What’s more, these impacts are especially apparent in the iciest, most remote areas on Earth — like Antarctica. The polar regions are the first areas in the world to be affected by a rapidly warming climate. According to the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition, the Antarctic Peninsula, one of the most popular destinations on Antarctic tourist voyages, has seen an increase in average summer temperatures by over 3° Celsius since 1970. For reference, the widely accepted threshold for preventing major climate catastrophe is an average increase in global surface temperature of 1.5°C.

And even though the North and South Poles are the first to show signs of climate change, activities like these cruises harbor extreme danger for the rest of the world as well. Increased carbon emissions are a major culprit of many modern disasters, including drought, famine, severe weather events, poverty and wildfires, among others. Moreover, these effects will be felt first and foremost by people in low-income or otherwise marginalized communities — not the primary emitters of greenhouse gasses that largely contribute to these impacts.   

It feels almost dystopian for a generation that grew up on movies, photographs and documentaries showcasing unsettling images of melting ice blocks to now see social media posts promoting trips to those same areas on vessels that worsen these conditions. We are in desperate need of action that addresses the irreversible impacts of anthropogenic climate change, not Instagram posts flaunting vacations to this vulnerable region.

The Editorial Board encourages anyone thinking of booking one of these cruises and exploring this one-of-a-kind ecosystem to reconsider. No amount of “inspiring conservation efforts” justifies the immense carbon emissions of these recreational trips that directly lead to devastating sea level rise and biodiversity loss. 

There are plenty of opportunities to discover the unique characteristics of the environment that you are already in, or one that is a significantly less carbon-intensive trip away. Consider, for example, exploring California’s national and state parks or hosting a screening of “Our Planet” with your loved ones if you truly want to feel inspired to tackle environmental issues.    

Yes, the lasting impression of seeing Antarctica with your own eyes is tempting, but are the pictures worth knowing that they will be some of the last documentation of the continent when it was still frozen?

Written by: The Editorial Board


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