Antarctica Saw More Visitors In 2012

Antarctica tourism is on the reboundEarlier this week, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) concluded their 24th annual meeting in Punta Arenas, Chile. Topics at the gathering included strategic planning for sustainable tourism in the Antarctic, methods of safe travel that can help protect the fragile ecosystem there and ways of enticing more travel companies to join the Association. During the conference, the IAATO also released its final tourism numbers for the 2012-2013 Antarctic travel season that has recently ended. Those numbers were up sharply over the previous year, indicating that there is still a strong interest amongst travelers to visit the frozen continent.

According to the IAATO, there were 34,316 visitors to the Antarctic last year – up from 26,519 during the 2011-2012 season. The organization noted that much of the growth came as a result of an increase of passengers on small- and medium-sized vessels over previous years as well as a jump in the number of travelers electing a cruise-only option. On those types of trips the visitors never actually step foot on the continent of Antarctica at all, but simply stay aboard their ship the entire time as it cruises about the Southern Ocean.

Looking ahead to next season, the IAATO doesn’t believe it will see nearly as large of an increase in the number of visitors as it did this year. Growth is predicted to be modest at best with most of the gains continuing to come from the cruise-only category. It seems that while interest amongst travelers for visiting the Antarctic is high, most would prefer to just see it from a distance.

Visitors who make the journey to the bottom of the world do seem to have some concerns about the impact of travel on the environment there, however. The IAATO revealed that more than $200,000 was directly contributed to various Antarctic charities by travelers who visited that part of the world with its member companies. That brought the total to more than $2.7 million over the past nine years.

British team sets new speed record for Antarctic crossing

Setting a new speed record for crossing AntarcticaIn late November, a group of British adventurers and scientists set off on a mission to the interior of the Antarctic continent in specially designed research vehicles. Their plan was to undertake several environmental research experiments while journeying through one of the most in hospitable environments on the planet, but they also managed to set a new speed record for an Antarctic crossing at the same time.

Dubbed the Moon-Regan Transantarctic Expedition in favor of its two organizers, Andrew Moon and Andrew Regan, the plan was for the team to conduct research along the way. For example, they collected samples of the Antarctic snow in order to test the impact of pollutants in the atmosphere of the Southern Hemisphere on the frozen continent itself. They also drove a specially designed snow buggy, powered by biofuels, in order to see how those experimental fuels performed in extreme conditions.

By all accounts, those research elements came off very well, but the real success of the mission was the speed crossing. It took the team just 13 days to drive from the Union Glacier Base to the Ross Ice Shelf, by way of the South Pole, on the far side of the continent. The expedition covered 1209 miles in 303 hours, using specially designed ground penetrating radar to help them avoid crevasses and other obstacles.

The expediton actually reached their destination back on December 9th, but then turned around and made the return trip so that the 10-man team, along with all their research vehicles and gear, could be plucked from the ice by Antarctic-Logistics and Expeditions, a company that specializes in delivering explorers to Antarctica. That happened last week, when the team was returned to Punta Arenas, Chile before making their way back home in time for the holidays.

Taking just 13 days to cross Antarctica is quite an impressive feat. While the team did indeed use motorized vehicles to do it, the terrain that they crossed is quite brutal on any kind of machine and the cold weather played havoc with their engines at times. Throw in the very real danger of driving into a crevasse, and you can start to appreciate the challenges of such a drive. This just might have been the most challenging road trip ever.

[Photo credit: Moon-Regan Transantarctic Expedition]

2012 Antarctic expedition to visit Scott’s final resting place

Expedition to Robert Falcon Scott's Final Resting PlaceBritish polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott is amongst the most tragic of all 20th century historical figures. In an era where exploration was a matter of national pride, he spent a significant portion of his life attempting to become the first person to reach the South Pole. And when he did finally make it to that place, he found that he had been beaten, by just a few weeks, by his Norwegian rival Roald Amundsen. With that bitter defeat in his mouth, he and his men turned for home, crossing the desolate and frigid antarctic expanse. Eventually, they all met their end on that long, cold, march, with Scott, along with his two remaining companions, freezing to death in a tent while a storm raged outside for ten days. They were just 11 miles from a life saving cache of supplies.

Despite his failure in Antarctica however, Scott remains a popular hero in the U.K. and next year, an expedition is being planned to memorialize his adventurous spirit. Dubbed the International Scott Centenary Expedition, the plan is for a team of adventurers to travel on skis to the final resting spot of the famous explorer and his crew, a place that hasn’t been visited in 100 years.

There will actually be two teams that will arrive at location of where Scott met his end. In addition to the team that will travel overland another group will be flown in to attend a memorial service in honor of the explorer and his comrades. Both groups will converge on the site where Scott’s tent was discovered on November 12, 2012, precisely 100 years to the day that his remains were found. The second team will be made up of descendants of Scott and the men who made the journey with him.

While the expedition is already well into the planning stages, with experienced explorers handling the logistics and preparation, there is actually room for one more person to join this adventure. With that in mind, the British newspaper the Telegraph is searching for a young man or woman with an adventurous spirit who would like to tag along on this 290 mile journey across the open expanse of Antarctica. The person selected must be a resident of the U.K. and be between the ages of 18-30. You can read all the details here, including other stipulations for selection and how to submit your application.

This is going to be a truly challenging adventure following in the footsteps of a legendary explorer. I would personally love to be selected to join this team, but since I don’t live in the U.K., not to mention being well above 30, I’m not eligible. Still, this is a great opportunity for someone to experience a true adventure of a lifetime.

IAATO explains climate change for Antarctic travelers

The International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (IAATO) continues to be a great source of information and education for travelers heading south to the frozen continent. Last week we told you about their efforts to keep the sailors aboard private yachts, well informed of the issues involved with navigating the Antarctic waters, helping to make the region even safer for travel. But beyond promoting safe travel in the Southern Ocean, the IAATO’s other chief concern is protecting the environment. To that end they have released a document entitled “Climate Change in Antarctica – Understanding the Facts” which is designed to educate Antarctic travelers about the threats to the environments which they’ll be traveling through.

The document, which was created in collaboration with the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR), is a fair and unbiased look at the impact of climate change on Antarctica, which plays a vital role in the circulation of both the atmospheric and ocean currents. Additionally, Antarctica contains 90% of the world’s ice and 70% of its fresh water, which makes it all the more valuable for the long term health of life on Earth.

Antarctica has long served as a barometer for the health of the planet, and as climate change continues to spread, its impact on the continent is undeniable. For instance, temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by more 3ºC over the past 50 years, which is nearly ten times the average rate for the rest of the world. Meanwhile, the large ozone hole that made news years ago, has led to a 15% increase in westerly winds, which have helped to insulate the continent, keeping Antarctica’s interior largely unchanged in terms of temperature and snow fall.

What does all of this have to do with travel to Antarctica? Clearly the report demonstrates how fragile the environment is there, and how important it is to protect it – something the IAATO has a vested interest in. The organization works with its members to help limit the impact of travel to the region, and in the process reduce their carbon footprint. The idea is for travelers to visit but have zero impact on the place, ensuring that it remains a healthy and vital destination for future adventure travelers to enjoy as well.

The Antarctic travel season is just now getting underway, and with the global economy remaining sluggish, a number of travel companies are once again offering excellent deals for tours to the region. If you’ve ever had a desire to visit the the place, this may be the best time to go.

[Photo credit: IAATO]