Read Caption

Obama Calls For Limits on Antarctic Tourism

Text by Contributing Editor Jon Bowermaster. Read more at his blog, Notes From Sea Level. Photograph by Contributing Photographer Peter McBride

Even as more of the Wilkins Ice Shelf in Antarctica threatens to crumble, in part due to warming temperatures, man’s influence on the continent is being heavily debated during these next two weeks in Baltimore. Timed to honor the 50th anniversary of the signing of the treaty that governs the continent, more than 400 officials and observers from around the world have gathered to ponder its future.

A seemingly bold, initial proposal was delivered by the Obama Administration at the onset of the meeting, via the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which wants to amend the treaty and impose mandatory limits on the size of cruise ships sailing there and the number of passengers they bring ashore.

Currently, there are neither limits on how big a ship can sail to Antarctica, nor how many passengers it can carry. There are voluntary rules on how many people can land onshore at anyone time, which limits landings to the smaller ships–rather than the Princess Star, which carries more than three thousand passengers down to photograph icebergs from the comfort of its Jacuzzis. The Obama proposal encourages written changes to the treaty in order to “ensure that tourism is conducted in a safe and environmentally responsible manner.”

Amending the Antarctic treaty is difficult, in part because it requires the unanimous agreement of all 47 signatory countries. The new U.S. proposal contains no specific enforcement mechanism or penalties for limiting tourist operations. But it would require signatories to the pact to ensure that Antarctic tour operators bar ships with more than 500 passengers from landing sites, restrict landings to one vessel at a time per site and limit passengers on shore to 100 at a time. These numbers match the current voluntary limits, but go a step further by asking they become the official language of the treaty.

The number of tourists visiting the continent continues to boom; more ships and more people means more potential for calamity – in the past two seasons I’ve watched one ship sink, two more run aground. And there are other, unreported accidents each season. In 1992-93, 6,700 tourists visited … this past year more than 45,000. It’s clear that something needs to be done to limit or at least legally monitor the boom. I’m surprised such a specific proposal came from the U.S. … But I like it.

Read Jon Bowermaster's recent feature on Antarctica, "The White Continent Heats Up," see a stunning photo gallery by Peter McBride, and post your comments below.