April 7, 2009

U.S. Seeks Stricter Rules On Antarctic Tourism

In an effort to prevent further environmental damage to Antarctica, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday urged tighter controls on cruise ships and tourists in the fragile region, Reuters reported.

Clinton told participants of an international meeting on both the Antarctic and the Arctic that tourism increases to Antarctica need more regulations governing travel.

She said the U.S. had submitted a resolution that would place limits on landings from ships carrying large numbers of tourists.

"We have also proposed new requirements for lifeboats on tour ships to make sure they can keep passengers alive until rescue comes," she said, without providing further details.

The joint session of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Arctic Council are meeting to discuss issues at both poles.

Tourism to the Antarctic region has increased five-fold since the early 1990s.

However, two rescue efforts for cruise ships stranded in icy Antarctic waters have occurred over the past four months and more than 150 crew and passengers escaped in a dramatic rescue after their ship hit ice off Antarctica and sank a year ago.

More needs to be done to prevent further degradation of the environment around Antarctica caused by vessels going to the region, Clinton told the joint session.

The Secretary of State also spoke of concerns involving shipwrecks, oil spills and aggravation of stresses on animals and plants that may already be negatively impacted by global warming.

Climate change is one of the main priorities for the Obama administration, and Clinton said the urgency of the issue was reflected by the collapse last weekend of an ice bridge holding together a huge Antarctic shelf.

"With the collapse of an ice bridge that holds in place the Wilkins Ice Shelf, we are reminded that global warming has already had enormous effects on our planet, and we have no time to lose in tackling this crisis," she said.

Nations are being asked to work together to resolve issues resulting from the warming of Arctic waters.

The U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas, a 1982 treaty that codifies which countries have rights to which oceans, shows that the U.S. is the only one of five countries bordering the Arctic region that has not ratified the treaty.

But the Obama administration has expressed interest in ratification, which Clinton said would give the "clarity we need to work together smoothly and effectively in the Arctic region."

An official ratification of the treaty has seen support from numerous environmental groups, the U.S. military, and energy companies looking to explore the Arctic.

But as global warming increases and the ice melts, it could also pit countries that border the Arctic Ocean"”like the United States, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway"”against each other to claim mineral rights.

Clinton said the changes under way in the Arctic would have long-term impacts on our economic future, our energy future and indeed again the future of our planet.