June 12, 2006

Tourism Boom Poses Risk to Antarctic Wilderness

By Ian MacKenzie

EDINBURGH (Reuters) - A boom in tourism to Antarctica is putting pressure on the world's last great wilderness and must be carefully managed, polar scientists said on Monday.

Opening an international meeting in Edinburgh on the threats to the frozen continent, they noted that tourism had quadrupled to 32,000 in the past eight years.

"This meeting will be looking at the whole issue of tourism in Antarctica and how it is managed," said Tony Press, head of the Antarctic Treaty's committee for environmental protection.

"We're particularly looking at introducing measures to guide tourist activities at particular places to ensure there are minimal impacts on the environment," he added.

He noted that the greatest number of tourists visited Antarctica by ship, raising environmental and safety issues.

There was also a threat of alien species moving in.

Kim Crosbie, environmental operations manager for the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, told Reuters the association imposed strict requirements on its members within Antarctic Treaty guidelines.

These included inspections and briefings before, during and after trips.

During the 10-day Antarctic Consultative Meeting in the Scottish capital, about 300 scientists, diplomats and government advisers will discuss risks to Antarctica not only from tourism but also from global warming and commercial exploitation.

They hope the meeting will spur governments to pledge money for research during the International Polar Year covering the Artic and Antarctic which starts on March 1, 2007.

"Recent evidence indicates that regional melting, north and south, is taking place at a worrying rate, and faster than we thought," Chris Rapley, director of the British Antarctic Survey, told reporters.

"The consequence for the future of mean sea level alone justifies the polar regions as the subject of special scientific attention," he added.

One estimate says that if the Greenland ice sheet -- the second biggest after Antarctica -- melts completely, sea levels will rise by seven meters (23 feet) and drown vast areas of the world.

That is nothing compared with the estimated 200 meters (650 feet) that sea levels will rise if all the Antarctic ice melts over the next several thousand years.

Rapley said the way in which creatures and plants had adapted to some of the most extreme temperatures on the planet provided insight into evolutionary adaptation.

The Antarctic Treaty was born out of the ground-breaking International Geophysical Year 1957-58, and was signed in 1959 by 12 countries whose scientists had been active in Antarctica during the geophysical year.

There now are 45 signatories to the treaty.