The quest for Earth’s vul­ner­a­ble ex­tremes

The quest for Earth’s vul­ner­a­ble ex­tremes

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE -

The swim­suit-clad tourists leap into the icy wa­ter, gasp­ing at the shock, and star­tling a gag­gle of pen­guins.

They are spec­ta­tors at the end of the world, lux­ury vis­i­tors ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a vul­ner­a­ble ecosys­tem close-up. And their very pres­ence might ac­cel­er­ate its demise.

Antarc­tica, a vast ter­ri­tory be­long­ing to no one na­tion, is a con­ti­nent of ex­tremes: The cold­est place on Earth, the windi­est, the dri­est, the most des­o­late and the most in­hos­pitable.

Now, it's also a choice des­ti­na­tion for tourists.

All around Half Moon Is­land, off the Antarc­tic Penin­sula, blocks of ice of all sizes float by on a calm sea.

On this strip of land, that juts out of the Antarc­tic Po­lar and to­wards South Amer­ica, vis­i­tors can see wildlife nor­mally only viewed in zoos or nature doc­u­men­taries along with spec­tac­u­lar icy land­scapes.

“Pu­rity, grandeur, a scale that's out of this world,” says Helene Brunet, an awestruck 63 year old French pen­sioner, en­joy­ing the scene.

“It's un­be­liev­able, to­tally un­be­liev­able. It’s amaz­ing just to be here, like a small speck of dust.”

AFP joined the 430 pas­sen­gers on board the Roald Amund­sen, the world’s first hy­brid elec­tric cruise ship, on its maiden voy­age in the South­ern Ocean.

"It's not your typ­i­cal beach, but it's awe­some to do it," says a numb Even Carlsen (58) from Nor­way, emerg­ing from his po­lar plunge in the 3°C wa­ter.

When tourists go ashore, bun­dled up in neon-coloured wind­break­ers and slathered in SPF50 sun­screen, they have to follow strict rules: Clean your per­sonal ef­fects so you don’t in­tro­duce in­va­sive species, keep a re­spect­ful dis­tance from wildlife to avoid dis­tress­ing them, don’t stray from the marked paths and don't pick up any­thing.

“We mucked up the rest of the world. We don’t want to muck up Antarc­tica too,” says an English tourist, as she vac­u­ums cat hair off her clothes be­fore go­ing ashore.

Heart of the Earth

The Antarc­tic penin­sula is one of the re­gions on Earth that is warm­ing the fastest, by al­most 3°C in the past 50 years, ac­cord­ing to the World Me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal Or­ga­ni­za­tion - three times faster than the global av­er­age.

In March 2015, an Ar­gen­tinian re­search sta­tion reg­is­tered a balmy 17.5°C, a record. “Ev­ery year you can ob­serve and record the melt­ing of glaciers, the dis­ap­pear­ance of sea ice... (and) in ar­eas with­out ice, the re­coloni­sa­tion of plants and other or­gan­isms that were not present in Antarc­tica be­fore,” said Marcelo Leppe, di­rec­tor of the Chilean Antarc­tic In­sti­tute.

Antarc­tica is ‘like the heart of the Earth,’ he added, say­ing that it ex­pands and con­tracts like a heart beat­ing, while the mighty current which re­volves around the con­ti­nent is like a cir­cu­la­tory sys­tem as it ab­sorbs warm cur­rents from other oceans and re­dis­tributes cold wa­ter.

The Antarc­tic Treaty, signed 60 years ago by 12 coun­tries - it now has 54 sig­na­to­ries - de­clared the area a con­ti­nent ded­i­cated to peace and science, but tourism has grad­u­ally in­creased, with a sharp rise in the past few years.

Tourism is the only com­mer­cial ac­tiv­ity al­lowed, apart from fish­ing - the sub­ject of in­ter­na­tional dis­putes over ma­rine sanc­tu­ar­ies - and is mainly around the penin­sula, which has a milder cli­mate than the rest of the con­ti­nent and is eas­ier to ac­cess.

Cruise ships have roamed the re­gion for around 50 years, but their num­bers only started to in­crease from 1990, as Soviet ice-break­ers found new pur­poses in the post-Cold War era.

Some 78,500 people are ex­pected to visit the re­gion be­tween Novem­ber and March, ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Associatio­n of Antarc­tica Tour Op­er­a­tors (IAATO).

That’s a 40 per cent in­crease from last year, due in part to short vis­its by a few new cruise ships car­ry­ing more than 500 pas­sen­gers, too many to dis­em­bark un­der IAATO reg­u­la­tions.

“Some might say ‘ Well, 80,000 people, that doesn’t even fill a na­tional sta­dium’... (and that it) is noth­ing like Gala­pa­gos which wel­comes 275,000 a year,” says IAATO spokes­woman Amanda Lynnes. "But Antarc­tica is a spe­cial place and you need to man­age it ac­cord­ingly.”

Leave Antarc­tica to the pen­guins

It is Antarc­tica's very vul­ner­a­bil­ity that is at­tract­ing more and more vis­i­tors.

“We want to see this fan­tas­tic nature in Antarc­tica be­fore it’s gone,” Guido Hofken, a 52 year old IT sales di­rec­tor says.

He said he had paid a sup­ple­ment to cli­mate com­pen­sate for their flight from Ger­many.

But some ques­tion whether tourists should be go­ing to the re­gion at all.

“The con­ti­nent prob­a­bly would be bet­ter off be­ing left to pen­guins and re­searchers, but the real­ity is, that is prob­a­bly never go­ing to hap­pen,” said Michael Hall, pro­fes­sor and ex­pert on po­lar re­gions at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury in New Zealand.

"Vi­car­i­ous ap­pre­ci­a­tion never seems to be enough for hu­mans. So with that be­ing the case, it needs to be made as low risk to the Antarc­tic en­vi­ron­ment and as low car­bon as pos­si­ble,” said Hall.

“How­ever, when the av­er­age tourist trip to Antarc­tica is over five tonnes of CO2 emis­sions per pas­sen­ger (in­clud­ing flights), that is a se­ri­ous ask.”

Soot or black car­bon in the ex­haust gases of the sci­en­tific and cruise ships go­ing to the re­gion is also of con­cern, said Soenke Diesener, trans­port pol­icy of­fi­cer at Ger­man con­ser­va­tion NGO Nabu. “Th­ese par­ti­cles will de­posit on snow and ice sur­faces and ac­cel­er­ate the melt­ing of the ice be­cause the ice gets darker and will ab­sorb the heat from the sun and will melt much faster,” he told AFP.

“So the people who go there to ob­serve or pre­serve the land­scape are bring­ing dan­ger to the area, and leave it less pris­tine than it was,” he added.

Re­spon­si­ble tourism

Antarc­tic tour op­er­a­tors in­sist they are pro­mot­ing re­spon­si­ble tourism.

With greener ships - heavy fuel, the most com­monly used for ma­rine ves­sels, has been banned in Antarc­tica since 2011 - cruise com­pa­nies have sought to make en­vi­ron­men­tal aware­ness a sell­ing point.

Here, their motto is: ‘Take noth­ing but photograph­s, leave noth­ing but foot­prints, keep noth­ing but mem­o­ries.’

But be­fore they’ve even set foot on the cruise ships de­part­ing from South Amer­ica - the most com­mon itin­er­ary - vis­i­tors to Antarc­tica will al­ready have flown across the world, caus­ing emis­sions that harm the very nature they have come so far to ad­mire.

Most vis­i­tors hail from the North­ern

Hemi­sphere, and al­most half are from the US and China, IAATO says.

“I’m a tourist who feels a lit­tle guilty about tak­ing a flight to come here,” ad­mits Fran­coise Lapeyre, a 58 year old glo­be­trot­ter from France.

Don’t men­tion cli­mate change

Like other ex­pe­di­tion cruises where ac­ces­si­ble science is part of their trade­mark, the Roald Amund­sen, owned by the Hur­tigruten com­pany, has no dance floor or casino.

In­stead, there are mi­cro­scopes, science events and lec­tures about whales and ex­plor­ers like Charles Darwin.

But they steer clear of cli­mate change, which is only men­tioned in­di­rectly. That’s a de­lib­er­ate de­ci­sion as the sub­ject has proven ‘quite con­tro­ver­sial’, said Ver­ena Meraldi, Hur­tigruten's science co­or­di­na­tor.

On­board, ‘pas­sen­gers’ are re­ferred to as ‘guests’ and ‘ex­plor­ers’ rather than ‘cruis­ers’. ‘Ex­plor­ers’ are typ­i­cally older, well-heeled, of­ten highly trav­elled pen­sion­ers who are handed walk­ing sticks as they step ashore.

“My 107th coun­try,” says a Dane, step­ping ashore onto Antarc­tica.

The Roald Amund­sen ‘guests’ choose be­tween three restau­rants, from street food to fine din­ing - a far cry from the con­di­tions en­dured by the Nor­we­gian ad­ven­turer for whom the ship is named, who had to eat his sled dogs to sur­vive his quest to reach the South Pole in 1911.

They have paid at least US$7,700 each for an 18-day cruise in a stan­dard cabin, and up to US$27,500 for a suite with a bal­cony and pri­vate jacuzzi.

Other cruises are bank­ing on ul­tra­lux­ury, with James Bond-like ships equipped with he­li­copters and sub­marines, suites of more than 200sq m and but­ler services.

With a sea­plane to boot, the megay­acht SeaDream In­no­va­tion will of­fer 88-day cruises ‘from Pole to Pole’ start­ing in 2021. The two most ex­pen­sive suites are al­ready booked.

Worlds collide

Out­side, in the deaf­en­ing si­lence, wildlife abounds.

All around are pen­guins, as awk­ward on land as they are ag­ile in wa­ter. Mas­sive and ma­jes­tic whales slip through the waves, and sea li­ons and seals laze in the sun.

On Half Moon Is­land, chin­strap pen­guins - so called be­cause of a black stripe on their chin - strut about in this spring breed­ing season, rais­ing their beaks and screech­ing from their rocky nests.

“This is to tell other males ‘This is my space’ and also, maybe, 'This is my fe­male'," or­nithol­o­gist Re­becca Hodgkiss, a mem­ber of the Hur­tigruten's sci­en­tific team, ex­plains, as a group of tourists stroll around ashore.

The colony of 2,500 pen­guins has been grad­u­ally de­clin­ing over the years, but it’s not known if that is man’s fault or they have just moved away, ac­cord­ing to Karin Strand, Hur­tigruten’s vice pres­i­dent for ex­pe­di­tions.

In­vis­i­ble to the naked eye, traces of hu­mankind are how­ever to be found in the pris­tine land­scape.

Not a sin­gle piece of rub­bish is in sight but mi­croplas­tics are ev­ery­where, swept in on ocean cur­rents.

“We've de­tected them in the eggs of pen­guins for ex­am­ple,” Leppe told AFP.

Venice un­der wa­ter

The Antarc­tic, which holds the world’s largest re­serve of fresh­wa­ter, is a tick­ing time bomb, warn ex­perts and stud­ies.

They say that the fu­ture of mil­lions of people and species in coastal ar­eas around the world de­pends on what is hap­pen­ing here.

As a re­sult of global warm­ing, the melt­ing ice sheet - es­pe­cially in the western part of the con­ti­nent - will in­creas­ingly con­trib­ute to ris­ing sea lev­els, rad­i­cally re-drawing the map of the world, says cli­mate sci­en­tist An­ders Lev­er­mann, of the Pots­dam In­sti­tute for Cli­mate Im­pact Re­search.

This melt­wa­ter will con­trib­ute 50cm to the global sea level rise by 2100, and much more af­ter that, he said.

"For ev­ery de­gree of warm­ing, we get 2.5m of sea level rise. Not in this cen­tury, but in the long run,” he said.

Even if the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity meets its obli­ga­tions un­der the Paris Agree­ment to limit global warm­ing to un­der 2°C, sea lev­els will still rise by at least 5m.

“Which means that Venice is un­der wa­ter, Ham­burg is un­der wa­ter, New York, Shang­hai, Kolkata,” he said.

It's im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict when, but the sce­nario ap­pears un­avoid­able, says Lev­er­mann.

In the same way that a cruise ship pow­er­ing ahead at full speed can’t im­me­di­ately stop, sea lev­els will con­tinue to rise even if all green­house gas emis­sions were to cease im­me­di­ately, a study has said.

Chang­ing the world?

The tourism in­dus­try says it hopes to make ‘am­bas­sadors’ out of Antarc­tica vis­i­tors.

“It's good for the an­i­mal life and for the pro­tec­tion of Antarc­tica that people see how beau­ti­ful this area is, be­cause you cher­ish what you know and un­der­stand,” said Hur­tigruten chief ex­ec­u­tive Daniel Sk­jel­dam.

Texan tourist Mark Halvor­son (72) says he is con­vinced.

“Having seen it, I am that much more com­mit­ted to having a very high pri­or­ity in my pol­i­tics, in my own in­ner core con­vic­tions to be­ing as en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly in my life as I can,” he said.

So, does Guido also see him­self as fu­ture ‘am­bas­sadors of Antarc­tica’?

“Just a lit­tle bit, prob­a­bly. But I don't think I will change the world,” Guido Hofken con­cedes.

“The best thing would be for no­body to travel to Antarc­tica.”

The con­ti­nent prob­a­bly would be bet­ter off be­ing left to pen­guins and re­searches, but that is prob­a­bly never go­ing to hap­pen

Michael Hall

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Oman

© PressReader. All rights reserved.