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Bottom's UP
E.M. Swift
January 20, 2003
By ski, by balloon and even by bike, adventurers are turning Antarctica from the last frontier into the hot new playground
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January 20, 2003

Bottom's Up

By ski, by balloon and even by bike, adventurers are turning Antarctica from the last frontier into the hot new playground

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Not everyone agrees with that sunny assessment, and there is growing concern in the scientific and environmental communities that recreational tourism in Antarctica is getting out of hand. Ten years ago 6,704 tourists visited Antarctica, most of them arriving by cruise line and restricting their visits to the Antarctic Peninsula. By 1999-2000 that number more than doubled, to 13,826. And while a weak global economy and the events of Sept. 11, 2001, have since curtailed that growth (only 11,588 tourists went to Antarctica in 2001-02), the number of land-based adventure tourists brought into the interior by ANI has continued to rise, from 139 in 1999-2000 to 159 last year to 179 this year.

"Adventure tourism is a very small segment of the tourism industry in Antarctica," says Josh Stevens, the North American campaigner for the Antarctica Project, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental group, "but it represents the greatest potential threat to the environment and scientific operations because it gets the press attention and encourages people to extend themselves beyond their capabilities. As more and more dubious 'records' are attempted, environmental impact will follow."

Antarctica's scientific appeal lies in its uniquely sterile environment. There's virtually no pollution, no contaminants, no bacteria, no disease. Virtually no plants or animals live in the continent's interior, where for six months the sun never rises and where the earth's coldest temperature was recorded: -129°F. Scientists from 27 countries work cooperatively on the continent, studying heaven and earth, and their ongoing climate and glacier research has set off some of the loudest global warming bells. It was scientists in Antarctica who discovered a hole in the earth's ozone in 1985.

"Scientists haven't had a chance to get to some of these places first," says Beth Clark, who is director of the Antarctica Project and wants to see a moratorium on adventure tourism in Antarctica for the next 10 years. "The scientist has one chance to get it right, and the adventurers can do these harebrained schemes anywhere. They're not appropriate in Antarctica. Adventure Network International is an accident waiting to happen. You combine all these activities, and there's a huge impact on the environment."

Kershaw, not surprisingly, disagrees, and her many supporters point out that the adventure tourist industry has to abide by the same strict environmental rules in the Antarctic that are in place for the scientific community. Visitors must haul out everything they bring into the frozen wilderness, including human waste, and every activity—harebrained or otherwise—must first be approved by both the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation. "We already have regulations we have to adhere to," Kershaw says, dismissing the notion that there should be a cap on the number of tourists who visit the continent. "Antarctica is like a rose. It's beautiful and exotic and fragile, yes, but it has its thorns. And those thorns will always limit the number of people who want to go down there. It's expensive, and those costs are not going down. Weather delays aren't an hour or two. They're a week or two. And there're only so many people who are willing to spend that much time waiting it out in a cold tent. It'll always be a limited market."

But one whose limits grow larger every year.

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