Thu, Dec 05, 2019 - Page 9 News List

The quest for Earth’s vulnerable extremes in Antarctica

Cruise companies have sought to make environmental awareness a selling point, hoping to make ‘ambassadors’ out of Antarctica visitors, despite accusations of ‘greenwashing’

By Pierre-Henry Deshayes  /  AFP, HALF MOON ISLAND, Antarctica

Illustration: Mountain People

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

They were 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 is 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, their varying forms resembling weightless origami shapes.

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

The ethereal shades of white that play across the pillowy peaks change with the light, acquiring pastel hues at dawn and dusk.

“Purity, grandeur, a scale that’s out of this world,” said Helene Brunet, an awestruck French 63-year-old, enjoying the scene. “It’s unbelievable, totally unbelievable. It’s amazing just to be here, like a small speck of dust.”

Agence France-Presse 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,” said numb Norwegian Even Carlsen, 58, emerging from his polar plunge in the 3°C water.

When tourists go ashore, bundled up in neon-colored windbreakers and slathered in sunscreen, they have to follow strict rules — clean your personal effects so you do not introduce invasive species, keep a respectful distance from wildlife to avoid distressing them, do not stray from the marked paths and do not pick up anything.

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

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 Argentine 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 recolonization of plants and other organisms that were not present in Antarctica before,” Chilean Antarctic Institute director Marcelo Leppe said.

Antarctica is “like the heart of the Earth,” he said, adding 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 nations — 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 concentrated mainly around the peninsula, which has a milder climate than the rest of the continent and is easier to access.

This story has been viewed 986 times.

Comments will be moderated. Keep comments relevant to the article. Remarks containing abusive and obscene language, personal attacks of any kind or promotion will be removed and the user banned. Final decision will be at the discretion of the Taipei Times.

TOP top