TRANS Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 17. Nr.
Februar 2010

Sektion 4.5. Arctic, Antarctica, Alps, Art – Imagining the Extreme / Natural Sciences, Humanities, Arts – Dialoguing
SektionsleiterInnen | Section Chairs: Knut Ove Arntzen (Universität Bergen), Gabriele Rampl (Scinews, Innsbruck) und Victoria Joan Moessner (University of Alaska)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Science and Tourism in Polar Regions – An Extreme or Necessary Symbiosis?

Birgit Sattler (University of Innsbruck) [BIO], Paul P. Sipiera (Planetary Studies Foundation, Galena, IL, USA)
and Rick Atkinson (Antarctic Heritage Trust, Fort Williams, UK)



About hundred years ago going to Polar Regions was a true risk of life to take since travel was dependent on questionable means of transportation such as ships and extensive trips by foot and man hauling of heavy sledges over unknown terrain. When tourism was well developed already in the Alpine region, the ice caps still belonged exclusively to polar pioneers and adventurers when the main motivation was exploration of vast ice masses.

Nowadays, the dream to go to the most remote places on our planet is not out of reach any more. Limiting factors like extremely low temperatures, harsh winds and restricted possibilities to move independently without safe guidance are no longer valid as such due to enhanced outdoor equipment which facilitates navigation, protection and shelter against the cold and wind together with communication facilities. Even the exorbitant costs to reach the Poles have been reduced to a more or less reasonable price which enables a substantial number of people to cross the polar circle.


Sensitivity of Polar Regions

Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on Earth. 98% of the land mass is covered with ice and the 2 remaining percent are climatic oases which are unique due to the lack of snow cover. Mean precipitation with max. 10 cm y-1 is causing an extremely dry environment and hence life needs special adaptation mechanisms to be able to thrive in these conditions. To study these life forms and their living conditions in a changing environment, multiple anthropogenic impact factors need to be excluded. For instance, the McMurdo Dry Valleys as dedicated LTER-regions (Long Term Ecological Research) provide extended periods of monitoring by protected areas from any impact other than natural ones. International research is taking place in these oases which also provoke interest of the broad public since these systems are accepted analogues to possible extraterrestrial habitats where life could still be present, most likely in a refuge. Clearly, these valleys would be of great interest for tourism due to scenic attractions. However, even scientists leave a substantial imprint which on the other hand requires studies to assess environmental impact thereof.

Since 1961 the whole unsettled area and all ice shelves between 60 and 90° South have been dedicated to peace and science under the protecting shield of the Antarctic Treaty. This document has been signed by various states to ensure that there will be no mining, hunting, exploitation and no territorial claims until the next negotiation in 2048. Another constitution is to prevent military incursions. Its members meet each year and adopt recommendations, but there is no authority to enforce them. Hence, this continent is dedicated to science and peaceful operations.

Regarding global climate, Antarctica is the most valuable reference available to develop models with signals obtained from more anthropogenic influenced regions (e.g. mountainous regions in Central Europe). Remote areas show more distinct and clear answers to environmental changes due to less overlap of disturbing factors. Since living conditions on this continent are harsh and hostile, life in and on the ice is in slow motion. And, if not focused on the coast line where rich mammal wildlife and bird colonies are thriving, life is dominated by microbes which show extremely long generation times due to a decelerated metabolism to safe energy. Hence, living communities in ice ecosystems such as the polar ice sheet or sea ice are very sensitive to any kind of change or disturbance.

Due to this sensitivity strict regulations have been set up to protect the life cycles of pro- and eukaryotic life which need to be followed by scientists and visitors. Human impact on extreme environments can be compared to the footprint on the Moon’s surface set by Neil Armstrong in 1969 which will be imprinted in the dust forever. Ecosystems which show very low activity barely recover from any influence and should thus be restricted. Out of this reason so called “Sites of Special Scientific Interest” (SSSI) have been created which are subject of strict regulations regarding usage and entrance for both scientists and tourists.


Tourism in Polar Regions

Even that the polar deserts do not seem to be the most favourable places on Earth for a leisure holiday, the fascination for both the Arctic and the Antarctic is unbroken and the desire to visit this sometimes eerie scenery is following even an increasing trend. Early tourism started in 1959 when Chile and Argentina were leading 500 paying tourists to the Antarctic Peninsula. The first action towards commercial tourism was set by Eric Lindblad who built a ship with the purpose to transport tourisms to Antarctica. The M/S Lindblad EXPLORER, later on known as the EXPLORER, nicknamed as “the little red ship” went off dock in 1969 and established the concept of expedition cruising. Since then tourism is a commercial profit which employs thousands of people. According to IAATO, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, about 6,700 tourists visited the Antarctic in the 1992/93 season. Up to the last season 2006/07, this number has been quadrupled to 29,500. IAATO as a regulating tool was founded by seven companies with the goal of promoting "safe and environmentally responsible" travel and up to now consists of 99 members. This organisation applies strict guidelines for the tour operators and the visitors. For example, the sizes of ships cruising in the Antarctic region as well as the number of people landing on a site are regulated. The character of tourism has considerably gained diversity. Still, the vast majority of visitors come on ship-borne expeditions, but the numbers of various expeditions like diving trips, marathons to the South Pole, or mountaineering and skiing on Mount Vinson (one of the Seven Summits, heights are announced between 4.892 and 5.140 m), is increasing and made more feasible due to the already mentioned improved requirements to enter extreme environments. Eric Lindblad has realized already during his incipient expedition cruises that this continent requires severe protection from ourselves. So his prior idea was already focused on his defined need to confront people not just with the unique beauty but also with the sensitivity of this continent following the simple statement “You cannot protect what you can see”. Under these circumstances the concept of “making every tourist an ambassador of the Polar Region” was born.

Antarctic tourists trends

Fig. 1. Antarctic tourists trends as released by IAATO (


Motivation to go to Polar Regions

However, one has to scrutinize the reason why humans are so attracted by this vast and wild environment.

For some people going to the Antarctic is a dream of their life time. This implies saving money to effort the trip but to come back with invaluable memories. One can also argue that a trip to the ice is like a catharsis for the soul. As observed on numerous scientists and also tourists who crossed the polar circles a subsequent focusing has taken place whilst apparently meaningful things in normal daily life lost their importance instantly. It is a way to get a new direction or orientation of life. Some choose the ice to escape from this muddle in civilization.

On the other hand, it is the most booming industry for armchair romantics and adventure. After “having done” the expedition, some visitors might get the feeling of “having survived” these harsh conditions barely which is boosting them with new energy. This aspect of surviving is quite attractive since in most occasions there is a safety net to protect people from any harm and not comparable to expeditions one hundred years ago.

For some it is ticking off a place to visit off a list - this category of visitors might not be the best ambassadors if their mind cannot be changed during the cruise. However, the vast majority is captured by the purity of this continent, the intense light and various shades of the ice.


Coexistence of tourism and science

It is a sad fact that the coexistence of tourism and science is a critical task. It is most likely that visitors would disturb any monitoring or equipment in the field either by ignorance or simply by curiosity.  In these extreme conditions, where successful science depends on perfect logistics, the slightest human induced modification can destroy experiments and set-ups. Therefore, high number of visitors will mask all gained signals retrieved from the natural environment.

However, to circumvent this contradiction, the other possibility is to involve tourists into scientific investigations on field sites as it can be the case with privately organized expeditions. The “2002 Antarctic Meteorite Expedition”, conducted and operated by the private US non-profit organisation “Planetary Studies Foundation” has shown successfully, that scientific and touristy interests can coexist under certain circumstances.

To work in the Antarctic is a privilege for any scientist. To pass this knowledge on to people who are not primarily into science can provoke a new obligation for scientists to leave the often cited ivory tower to explain the need for the protection of these areas in the broad public. Besides, tourists will be directly involved in experiments and investigations which possibly adds their perspective to see this continent under a new perspective.

The best living example for increasing interest of tourists is the Base Port Lockroy at the Antarctic Peninsula. This British station has been erected in a top-secret operation of the Royal Navy (“Operation Tabarin”) at Goudier Island during the Second World War to listen to German naval actions and set into operation in 1944. The residents on the base conducted early meteorological observations and were part of a British strategic presence. After the war the base was handed to the newly formed Falkland Dependencies and was place of early ozone research but was closed down in 1962. In 1996, unselfish members of the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT) re-erected the collapsed building and made it to the most visited site of the whole continent with a wonderful museum showing base life in the 50ies, where there was still science in action. The fond maintenance which requires endless man hours each season is making Port Lockroy to a charming place in the middle of 600 breeding pairs of Gentoo penguins with the background of whaler stories, where tourists get the idea of early exploration, prior science under harsh conditions and present life on base.  Nowadays, the base has become one of the most popular places for tourists to visit with an increasing trend from year to year. The operators of the station who are present each season from November to March also conduct long term monitoring of the penguin colonies where the difference between areas with and without human impact is observed. By a most sensible management this historic site is an excellent example of how to sensitize visitors for this one-of-a-kind environment and spread this information back home. And exactly this would be the requirement to handle the symbiosis between visitors and scientific needs.

The increasing movement South- and Northbound is reaching a most critical point when safety issues are no longer valid. By numerous expeditions being conducted it is no longer an excitement and safe cruises are taken for granted. Large ships without ice class are crossing the polar circle and nobody would have imagined that the old expedition ship M/S Explorer would be in severe trouble as it was the case in November 2007 where she hit an iceberg and even sank.  This catastrophe was surely a wake-up call for the operators and it is again provoking the dormant question to reduce the number of ships cruising in polar waters and hence also the landing of visitors.

Therefore, this necessarily needed balance needs to be found to let science peacefully coexist with the needs for visitors. The best push for that might be to establish a solid base of information for visitors under strict regulations, as it is already the case for the Antarctic Peninsula. Science needs the access to the environment if it is to be studied and of any value, however, not for any price. So it is the case for visitors where a basic understanding of how these sensitive environments can survive and adapt is required.  If this balance can be established, a fruitful coexistence could be possible and visitors can act as the ambassadors and spread their observations about rapid changes on this vast continent.

By seeing the change and the vulnerability the perspective can be changed and apprehended - as Lindblad said: “You cannot protect what you can see.”


B.S. received a grant by Planetary Studies Foundation for the expeditions to Antarctica. UKAHT offered accommodation at Port Lockroy, the crew of the ship “Explorer” (Gap Expeditions) provided invaluable help for the travel to and from the Antarctic, as well as the base manager of Port Lockroy, Rick Atkinson, who was responsible to make this reality.

4.5. SektionsArctic, Antarctica, Alps, Art – Imagining the Extreme / Natural Sciences, Humanities, Arts – Dialoguing

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For quotation purposes:
Sattler/Sipiera/Atkinson: Science and Tourism in Polar Regions – An Extreme or Necessary Symbiosis? - In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 17/2008. WWW:

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