DISCOVERING ICE - A World Without Ice - Henry N. Pollack

A World Without Ice - Henry N. Pollack (2009)


The ice was here, the ice was there,
The ice was all around;
It cracked and growled, and roared and howled,
Like noises in a swound!

—SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

In late May of 1768, Lieutenant James Cook, a young officer in the Royal Navy of King George III of England, received an unusual assignment from the British Admiralty. He was to sail to the South Pacific on HMS Endeavour to make astronomical observations of the planet Venus as it passed directly between the Sun and Earth, an orbital event that would take place in early June of the following year. Such a passage, known as a transit of Venus, eclipses a very small circular area on the face of the Sun that appears like a shadow moving across the solar disk. This astronomical phenomenon offered a method of estimating the distance between the Sun and Earth, by simultaneous observations of the moving dark spot from different points on Earth. Cook was to make his observations on the island of Tahiti in the Pacific Ocean, on the opposite side of the globe from England. The ostensible motivation for this undertaking lay in the suggestion that an accurate determination of the Earth-Sun distance was important for reliable navigation at sea.

The complexities of the motions of Earth and Venus about the Sun make transits relatively rare events, coming in pairs separated by eight years, but with more than a century separating one pair from the next. After the 1761/1769 pair, the next chances to observe a transit would come in 1874/1882 and 2004/2012. Cook had been selected for this scientific undertaking because of his skills in surveying and charting, honed a decade earlier on the St. Lawrence River, during the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France for control of the territory that would become Canada.

Endeavour was a small ship, just a little longer than a modern railway coach, but home to eighty-five seamen and another dozen officers and accompanying naturalists, plus their equipment, water, provisions, and grog. The voyage from England to Tahiti followed a route south through the Atlantic, around Cape Horn at the tip of South America, and thence west into the Pacific to Tahiti. The full journey totaled roughly twelve thousand miles, equivalent to about half the distance around the globe. Under sail it took almost exactly eight months to reach Tahiti, including provisioning stops in Madeira and Rio de Janeiro, and some specimen collecting in Tierra del Fuego.

Cook was meticulous about the health of his crew, as the scourge of scurvy was already well known on long voyages. He knew that diet was important to health, and he carried an ample supply of sauerkraut to ward off scurvy. The crew, had they known of it, would have lobbied hard for the anti-scorbutant that Dutch sailors preferred: white wine. It is not clear whether Cook was aware of the prophylactic powers of wine, but he clearly knew the perils of having alcohol-incapacitated seamen. Christmas Day of 1768, celebrated off the coast of Patagonia, was marked not by religious services, but by a crew pursuing total inebriation. One of the naturalists remarked that they were lucky the Christmas winds were light.

Endeavour arrived in Tahiti in mid-April of 1769, in ample time to prepare for the astronomical observations. Cook selected a place to conduct the measurements—on a sandy beach not far from the present-day city of Papeete. He called the place Point Venus. When I visited Papeete a few years ago I was keen to see this famous scientific spot, but I worried that in the more than two centuries since Cook was there, the place might have lapsed into nothingness. I asked a taxi driver if he had ever heard of Point Venus. Yes, he replied, he knew it well. Skeptical that it would be so easy to find this historic place, I queried him further. Yes, yes, he knew the spot. So I asked him to take me there, and fifteen minutes later we arrived. It was Point Venus all right—but today well known as a popular nudist beach! Incidentally, there is also a small monument to Captain Cook’s 1769 visit.


WHILE THE TRANSIT of Venus was the announced scientific rationale for this voyage, Cook’s sailing orders from the Admiralty had another component, designated as secret and not to be opened by Cook until he was at sea. These orders addressed Endeavour’s assignment after the astronomical observations had been completed. They revealed that Cook was to search for Terra Australis Incognita, a hypothetical southern continent that had supposedly been dimly sighted in high southern latitudes by earlier mariners.

The notion of a southern continent had been promoted through philosophical and aesthetic arguments by Aristotle and later Ptolemy two millennia before the Age of Exploration. They believed that symmetry and balance were inherent characteristics of the natural world, and that Earth, as a natural object, must surely display these qualities. Such beliefs required the existence of landmasses in the Southern Hemisphere to balance the extensive landmasses of the Northern Hemisphere.

Not long after the transit was over—only six hours after it began—Cook took Endeavour southward in search of a southern continent. Sailing south in the peak of the Southern Hemisphere winter quickly led to cold encounters with widespread sea ice, and it did not take long for Cook to realize that it was not the right season for a course into high latitudes. In September he headed west and encountered today’s New Zealand. He proceeded to circumnavigate and chart the coastlines of both the North and South Islands, demonstrating that they were not a large southern continent, as had been surmised by earlier explorers. The return to England was by way of Australia, where Endeavour narrowly avoided disaster on the Great Barrier Reef, then onward to the East Indies, where several crew contracted malaria, and around Africa to the Atlantic, before heading north on the last long leg home. In the Atlantic he encountered some American whalers, and stopped to get news of the last three years—he learned that Europe was, for a change, at peace. Cook arrived in England in the summer of 1771, with no sighting of Terra Australis Incognita to report.

The return of Endeavour was celebrated and acclaimed widely, but the focus was not on Cook, the modest master of the vessel. In the limelight was the young patrician naturalist Joseph Banks, well versed in manipulating the press to his advantage. Within just a few weeks, Banks had worked up a frenzy of public adulation in the press that culminated in his announcement that there would soon be a second voyage of exploration and scientific discovery, under his leadership. Incidentally, Banks would insist that Cook undertake the maritime duties, and there was little Cook could do to decline. Within a month of his returning home after an absence of three years, Cook was already planning the next sailing. His wife, Elizabeth, was not too pleased.

In 1772, by then promoted to captain, the rank by which he is best remembered, Cook sailed again for the Southern Ocean aboard a new ship, HMS Resolution, once again in search of Terra Australis Incognita. On this voyage he headed toward the Pacific by turning east around Africa into the Indian Ocean, and pushing to ever higher southern latitudes as ice conditions would permit. In 1773 he crossed the Antarctic Circle1 three times, at longitudes 40º east, 140º west, and 105º west; each time he encountered impenetrable ice, and came away without sighting a southern continent.

His eastward course across the South Pacific, never far from the ice, brought him to the southern tip of South America just as 1774 ended. Early in the new year, he sailed eastward into the South Atlantic, and discovered South Georgia Island, a banana-shaped glacier-striped island that, at first sighting, he thought might be the long-sought southern continent. But when the distal tip of the banana came into view, he knew it was just an island. He named it Isle of Georgia, in honor of King George III. Continuing eastward, Cook reached the cape of southern Africa, intersecting his path around Africa three years earlier. He had now circumnavigated the globe in the southern high latitudes, seldom very far from the edge of the ice. Cook noted in his journal2:

I had now made the circuit of the Southern Ocean in a high latitude and traversed in such manner as to leave not the least room for the possibility of there being a continent, unless near the pole and out of reach of navigation… . The greatest part of this Southern Continent (supposing there is one) must lie within the Polar Circle where the sea is so pestered with ice that the land is thereby inaccessible… . I can be bold to say that no man will ever venture farther than I have done, and that the lands which may lie to the south will never be explored. Thick fogs, snowstorms, intense cold and every other thing that can render navigation dangerous one has to encounter, and these difficulties are greatly heightened by the inexpressible horrid aspect of … a country doomed by nature never once to feel the warmth of the sun’s rays, but to lie for ever buried under everlasting snow and ice.

Cook had clearly disproved the hemispheric “balance” of landmasses postulated by Aristotle, but he demonstrated symmetry of a different type, symmetry not of land but of ice. He had shown that there was a daunting ice barrier in the high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere, similar to that encountered in the Arctic. His predictions about the inaccessibility of the polar latitudes in the South, however, did not stand. In the early nineteenth century several sailing ships did indeed sight the Antarctic continent.

In 1838, just a little more than a half century after the founding of the nation, the United States sent an expedition to the South Pacific and Antarctic, formally called the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-43, but colloquially known as the “U.S. Ex Ex.” The expedition was commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, a naval officer, but was well staffed with scientists, the best known of which was the noted biologist and geologist James Dwight Dana. In early 1840 the expedition reached the icy barrier along the coast of Antarctica just at the Antarctic Circle, two thousand miles south of Australia. Wilkes traced the coastline for more than fifteen hundred miles, equivalent to the distance from Boston to Miami. Proof that this extensive terrain was indeed a continent would come later, but clearly the U.S. Ex Ex had encountered a big and continuous landmass.


The symmetry of ice in both the northern and southern high latitudes sometimes conveys a false impression that Earth’s polar regions are really quite similar. The presence of ice, however, actually masks more fundamental differences between the north and south polar regions. The Arctic and Antarctic have been described as being “poles apart,” of course geographically, but also in many other characteristics. The South Pole lies well within the continent of Antarctica, some 850 miles inland from, and 10,000 feet above, the nearest coastline. The North Pole, by contrast, is located in the Arctic Ocean, with the seafloor 14,000 feet below and the closest coast some 450 miles away. Both poles are set in ice, but the thickness of the ice is very different. Beneath the South Pole lies more than 10,000 feet of ice, whereas the North Pole sits on a thin 10- to 20-foot sheet of frozen ocean water, give or take a few feet. The ice in both settings is on the move, but at very different speeds—at the South Pole the ice slips slowly over the pole at a glacial pace of about 30 to 40 feet per year, whereas the sea ice of the Arctic is swept along by wind and currents at an average speed of about 3 to 4 miles per day.

Size-wise, Antarctica is a typical continent—smaller than Asia, Africa, North America, and South America, but larger than Europe and Australia. And it shares many geological characteristics with the other continents. The large-scale architecture of all continents is similar to that of icebergs—continents are composed of rocks, such as granite, that are less dense than the rocks that make up the floors of the surrounding ocean basins. Just as ice floats in water, with some ice above but most below the water’s surface, continental rocks “float” in rocks of greater density, and stand a bit higher than the rocks in which they are immersed. The average elevation of the continental surface is some three miles above the ocean floor, but the low-density rocks of the continents extend more than twenty miles into the Earth, a continental “root” not unlike the submerged portion of an iceberg in the ocean.

As in the other continents, the Antarctic rocks show the telltale characteristics of a long and complex geologic history—a wide range of ages, from ancient Precambrian crystalline rocks to very young unconsolidated glacial deposits. The rock types include the common rock categories—igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic—and in typical proportions. The Antarctic continent has mountain ranges such as the Antarctic Peninsula, which is really just an extension of the Andes of South America, and the Transantarctic Mountains, which snake across the continent from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. Antarctica almost certainly has its share of mineral deposits, although none is exploitable, at least for now, because of the extreme environment. Antarctica is, however, unique in one important characteristic—its location astride the South Pole. Virtually all of Antarctica lies within the Antarctic Circle, and more than three quarters of its area lies at latitudes greater than 70º south.

How and when did Antarctica come to the South Pole? One might be tempted to ask, “Hasn’t it always been there?” but there is ample geologic evidence to indicate that it has not. Sedimentary rocks of Mesozoic age along the Antarctic Peninsula show beautiful fossilized tropical ferns, and Paleozoic-age coal seams in the Transantarctic Mountains reveal well-preserved low-latitude vegetation. No, Antarctica was not always at the South Pole—it came there from somewhere else, and fairly recently, geologically speaking.

At the beginning of the Jurassic period, some two hundred million years ago, the terrain that was to become Antarctica was part of a super-continental assemblage called Gondwanaland, an enormous landmass that also comprised the eventual continents of South America, Africa, and Australia, as well as smaller fragments including Madagascar, New Zealand, and India. Gondwanaland itself had been assembled only one hundred million years earlier, during the closing stages of the Paleozoic era. Following its assembly from predecessor continental terrains from around the globe, this composite landmass received deposits of a unique and remarkably widespread sequence of rock formations, and saw the evolution of a cosmopolitan fauna and flora. Geologists and paleontologists eventually recognized this rock sequence with its contained fossils as the Gondwanaland signature—the key to recognizing the full extent of Gondwanaland.

About 170 million years ago, the forces of plate tectonics began to dismember Gondwanaland and disperse the pieces. Just as sea ice glides slowly over the surface of the high-latitude oceans, so also do large segments of Earth’s rocky outer shell drift slowly over the globe, mobilized by forces from within the planetary interior.

The continental dispersal created a new geography in the Southern Hemisphere. Within Gondwanaland, Antarctica was originally situated at about 40º south, and governed by a temperate climate very similar to that characteristic of the continental United States today—neither polar nor tropical. Widespread forests and marshes of the time were eventually compressed into the coal beds found today in the Transantarctic Mountains.

The separation of Antarctica, Madagascar, India, and Australia from Africa, and from one another, created a gap that became the modern Indian Ocean. A little later, the departure of South America from Africa created the South Atlantic Ocean. India went its separate way northward across the equator, eventually to collide with southern Asia to create the Himalaya mountain range. Australia and Antarctica were carried southward.

The defining tectonic events for Antarctica, the events that make it unique, came around thirty to forty million years ago. Australia parted company with Antarctica and headed north, leaving Antarctica to enjoy the pole alone. And as Antarctica slipped farther south, the Andean link between South America and the Antarctic Peninsula was stretched and then broken, opening a six hundred-mile-wide oceanic chute known today as the Drake Passage. Antarctica was then totally surrounded by the Southern Ocean, a ring of water around the globe at 60º south. The prevailing wind at that latitude blows from west to east, and it sets up an ocean current, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, that circles Antarctica relentlessly.


The climatological impact of the west-to-east circumpolar current has been profound. With virtually no flow in a north-south direction, the current inhibits mixing of the cold Southern Ocean with warmer waters of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. Unlike the Arctic region, which receives tropical warmth via the northward-flowing Gulf Stream of the Atlantic Ocean, the Antarctic is climatologically isolated by this circulatory girdle. In the Arctic, the port of Murmansk, in Russia, remains ice-free throughout the year, even though it is located well north of the Arctic Circle. By contrast, in the Antarctic there is not a single place south of the Antarctic Circle that is free of winter sea ice.

There are many definitions for the boundary of Antarctica. The continental coast defines the geographic boundary, the margin of the Antarctic tectonic plate delimits the geological boundary, and the 60º parallel of south latitude marks the political boundary governed by the Antarctic Treaty. But the climatological boundary, the boundary that makes Antarctica unique, is defined by the abrupt north-to-south transition from warmer temperate-zone water to frigid polar water within the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. It is not unlike the “marriage of the waters” in Brazil, at the confluence of the Rio Negro and the Amazon. There the dark water of the Rio Negro flows side by side with the tan, muddy waters of the Amazon, but after a few miles of getting acquainted, they mix together and become one. In the Antarctic, however, the winds and currents maintain the large temperature differences, and prevent a mixing of the waters. They flow side by side in a courtship never consummated—a marriage (surely not the first) thwarted by frigidity. This climatologic boundary is known as the Antarctic Convergence.

The crossing of the Convergence is marked by a drop in the temperature of the seawater of nearly ten Fahrenheit degrees, and the air temperature chills accordingly. Fog is an occasional visible marker, and the appearance of icebergs, first a few and later many, raises the navigational ante as ships penetrate farther south. The radar on a ship’s bridge slowly becomes speckled with reflections from the bits and pieces of ice. Soon thereafter, large floating “islands” of ice appear. The continent is not yet visible, but it is very clear that you have arrived in the Antarctic.

When you finally reach the continent, your feelings are overtaken by the pristineness and simplicity of the landscape. Mountains rise from the sea, draped entirely in white. Large serpentine glaciers a mile across wind through the landscape, apparently static, but in reality slithering slowly downward from the heights—giant conveyor belts delivering huge blocks of ice to the sea. The seas surrounding the continent are clogged with titanic icebergs, of extraordinary size and architecture. The vista is powerful, yet quietly serene. Aboard Nimrod in early 1908, Ernest Shackleton described his arrival:

As far as the eye could see … the great white wall-sided bergs stretched east, west, and south, making a striking contrast with lanes of blue-black water between them. A stillness, weird and uncanny, seemed to have fallen upon everything when we entered the silent water streets of this vast unpeopled white city.3

The landscape is vast but also deceptive—it is without most of the visual cues that attach scale, distance, and dimension to the natural world elsewhere. Indeed, the simplicity emerges from what the landscape is free of. There are no people; no buildings or construction cranes; no telephone poles or microwave towers; no roads, cars, trucks, or snowplows; no cultivated fields or irrigation circles; no airplanes overhead; no billboards, junkyards, or trash mounds. And the natural world is also limited—no bushes, hedges, trees, or forests; no tulips, sunflowers, lupines, or forsythia; and no wolves, deer, moose, or caribou.

The aural “landscape” is also very different. There are no industrial sounds; no deep rumble of diesel engines; no hissing, humming, whining, or thumping; no blaring music; no honking horns or sirens. The ubiquitous sounds of the Antarctic are those of wind, water, and ice. Winds whistle at fifty, sixty miles an hour, and waves crash with great thuds on beaches of volcanic rock, or against rocky or icy cliffs. Glaciers creak and crack as they inch their way through rocky valleys. And superposed on the inanimate sounds are those of the wildlife—whales spouting, seals belching, penguins calling. Petrels, gulls, and albatross ride the wind in almost total silence. This is truly “the world without us,”4 a frozen part of the Garden of Eden that has been off limits to us for most of human history.

The colors of the Antarctic are unlike colors elsewhere. Whereas green is the signature color of well-watered vegetation everywhere, and reds, yellows, and tans paint Earth’s deserts, Antarctica specializes in black, white, and blue. The rock is mostly black and the snow white. Glacial ice is white at the surface, but deep brilliant blue where crevasses and fissures reveal the interior. On a cloudy day, the deep sea is dark, and when the Sun shines brightly, the ocean appears a very deep blue. In brilliant sunshine the sky is a perfect sky blue, and when clouded over, it is a blank sheet of low-hanging gray. In deep fog a three-dimensional gray shroud settles in, completely disrupting one’s sense of orientation and distance.

The Sun in the Antarctic summer is never far above or far below the horizon—it simply rides around the horizon, offering an ever-changing azimuth of illumination that casts pink hues and slowly changing long shadows that sweep across the landscape. The polar circle cuts through the Antarctic Peninsula about halfway through its lineal extent. South of the circle are long stretches of summer, when the Sun never sets, and north of that line the Sun dips just below the horizon for an hour or two, creating a very long “sunset” of delicate pinks, before returning to view and offering direct illumination once again.

Wind is erratic. A transition from total calm to gale-force winds can occur unexpectedly, the result of very cold and dense air suddenly spilling off highlands and roaring through valleys. These winds, called katabatic winds, are the atmospheric equivalent of a flash flood. They come without announcement, bluster through with abandon, and are gone within minutes. They can drive inattentive ships into rocks and flatten humans caught unaware.

But nothing quite matches the special experience of getting up close and personal with big icebergs. Conveying the scale of bergs requires reference to something you can envision, so let’s start with a ship of the type that has brought me to the Antarctic several times—an oceangoing vessel more than four hundred feet long and almost one hundred feet high. When such a ship positions itself in the lee of a middling iceberg, the vessel is dwarfed, silhouetted against a floating ice island that easily exceeds the ship in both length and height. The ship becomes a miniature, not in a bottle, but in a vast field of icebergs. A ship that would fill a football stadium does not quite measure up.

Icebergs generally come either from a glacier discharging great chunks of ice into the sea, or from the margins of a floating ice shelf. The distinction is artificial, however, because the ice shelves themselves are fed by glaciers. But the shelves tend to lose the irregularity of the glacial ice that feeds them, eventually to exhibit a flat upper surface like a tabletop. When a shelf launches an iceberg through breakup or break-off, the berg retains the flat top (at least for a while), and accordingly is identified as a tabular berg. The chunks that calve from the snout of a valley glacier are much more irregular, depending on the extent of crevassing that develops in the glacier as it creeps through its valley toward the sea.

Once an iceberg is in the sea, wind and water take over its destiny. Afloat, a berg will bob up and down like a giant cork, rising, falling, swaying, and tilting in slow motion. Sometimes a floating berg will break in two, and for a few minutes each offspring berg will slowly rock and roll in the sea, seeking a new equilibrium that places its center of gravity in a stable position below the surface. Sometimes this process leads to a complete overturning that brings the formerly submerged portion of the berg to the surface. If a berg is blown into shallower water, it may run aground and await a high tide for relaunching. Or it may sit there for years, slowly being diminished by the pounding of waves. Wave erosion creates a “waterline,” where the ice and the sea surface meet; some bergs display many waterlines at different elevations and intersecting angles, telling a history of grounding and refloating, and of re-equilibration following a breakup.

The sculpting of icebergs by the elements has always fascinated observers, and opened their imaginations to interpreting the myriad shapes. Icebergs are to the polar imagination what cloud forms are to people elsewhere. Frank Worsley, the captain of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, offered this description of a field of Antarctic icebergs:

Great fragments and hummocks of very old floes, worn, broken down, and melted into all sorts of grotesque and wondrous shapes, were heaving, bowing, curtseying, and jostling on the long westerly swell… . Castles, towers, and churches swayed unsteadily around us. Small pieces gathered and rattled against the boat. Swans of weird shape pecked at our planks, a gondola steered by a giraffe ran foul of us, which amused a duck sitting on a crocodile’s head. Just then a bear, leaning over the top of a mosque, nearly clawed our sail. An elephant, about to spring from a Swiss chalet on to a battleship’s deck, took no notice at all; but a hyena, pulling a lion’s teeth, laughed so much that he fell into the sea, whereupon a sea boot and three real penguins sailed lazily through a lovely archway to see what was to do, by the shores of a floe littered with the ruins of a beautiful white city and surrounded by huge mushrooms with thick stalks. All the strange, fantastic shapes rose and fell in stately cadence, with a rustling, whispering sound and hollow echoes to the thudding seas, clear green at the water line, shading to a deep dark blue far below, all snowy purity and cool blue shadows above.5

WHAT LURED PEOPLE into the polar ice? Fame, glory, adventure, and career advancement were important motivations for explorers and naval officers, but fortune, territory, and geopolitical power were what the commercial and national sponsors of exploring expeditions generally hoped for. By early in the twentieth century all the land surrounding the Arctic Ocean was politically attached to either Russia, the United States, Canada, Denmark, or Norway, and the ocean itself, mostly covered with year-round sea ice, was at that time not a sufficiently attractive commercial target to promote international tensions. However, the situation in the Antarctic was different.


Although at the end of the nineteenth century neither the North nor South Pole had been reached, the route to the South Pole was over land, and in that heyday of imperialism, “vacant” land invited territorial claims. The Berlin Conference of 1884 had partitioned Africa for the benefit of the European powers; France, Germany, Belgium, Portugal, Great Britain, Italy, and Spain imposed colonial governments on more than 95 percent of the African territory.

Antarctica was unclaimed land. Although it was not an inviting place to establish colonies of settlers, nor seen as a great opportunity to enrich national treasuries and privileged royalty, it nevertheless offered the prestige factor of adding more pink or lavender or green to imperial world maps. And it had some strategic military value in terms of control of the Drake Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, a value that was diminished after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914.

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, most of the European nations that had set up colonial regimes in Africa were active in exploring and exploiting the coast of Antarctica, but they were joined by Norway, Sweden, and the Southern Hemisphere nations of Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina. Both Norway and Great Britain had penetrated the interior of Antarctica as well, reaching the South Pole in December 1911 and January 1912, respectively. Britain initiated the claiming of Antarctic territory in 1908, even before reaching the pole. World War I intervened briefly while the European powers fought with one another for imperial supremacy, but over the next twenty-five years, Australia, New Zealand, France, Norway, Chile, and Argentina announced Antarctic territorial claims. These claims were typically drawn as “pie slices,” with the center of the pie at the South Pole. The claims of Chile, Argentina, and Great Britain, however, inconveniently overlapped with one another, and as World War II came to a close in the Northern Hemisphere—the seeds of conflict had been planted in the territorial claims in Antarctica.

The end of World War II also saw the emergence of a new global power structure, the preeminence of the United States and the Soviet Union, and the nascent cold war between them. The United States had been active in Antarctica—from the U.S. Ex Ex presence in 1840 to the geological explorations and 1929 flight over the South Pole by Commander Richard Byrd from his Little America base on the Ross Ice Shelf. After World War II the United States returned to Little America to conduct Operation High Jump, a military exercise of 4,700 troops, 12 ships, and 9 planes.

The Soviet Union, however, was a newcomer to the Southern Hemisphere. Imperial Russia had sponsored Fabian Gottlieb von Bellings hausen’s 1819-21 circumnavigation of the globe, which included a sighting of Antarctica in 1820, but nothing thereafter. The decade following World War II saw the cold war take full form—the Berlin Airlift, the Korean War, and the nuclear weapons race. The Soviets were asserting themselves everywhere, and soon, perhaps not surprisingly, the cold war came to the cold continent. The Soviet Union rejected the notion of national territories in Antarctica, and in 1950 made its position very clear when it stated that it would not recognize as lawful any decisions taken on Antarctica without its participation. The growl of the Red Bear echoed across the white continent.

The United States also rejected all existing land claims, and to emphasize the point it set up a research station at the South Pole. By “occupying” the South Pole, at the center of the continental pie, the United States could then symbolically claim control in all directions, over the full 360º of azimuth radiating outward from the pole. But it was only symbolism to make a point; the nominally non-imperial policy of the United States had long been to eschew claims of territory in the Antarctic.

In the face of the contentious overlapping claims of Argentina, Chile, and Britain on the Antarctic Peninsula, Chile in 1948 proposed a five-year suspension of sovereignty issues, and urged instead tripartite scientific collaboration. In the following year, the three nations signed a treaty barring military vessels south of latitude 60º. But by 1952, Argentina had built a base at Hope Bay on the peninsula, only a few hundred yards away from a British base that had partially burned a few years earlier. When later that year the British returned to rebuild their base, the Argentines fired warning shots over the heads of the British reconstruction crew. These were the first shots fired in hostility in Antarctic history, and did not augur well for a peaceful future in Antarctica. Britain brought in the Royal Marines to protect the reconstruction.

The deteriorating political situation in Antarctica invited a more sober alternative, one that would defuse the incendiary incident at Hope Bay and perhaps prevent what was apparently looming near—an inevitable conflict of national interests throughout the continent. Interested nations discussed ways to make Antarctica a continent for science, and a continent for peace. Thus was born the concept of what would become known as the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58.


The idea for an international scientific year focusing on the high latitudes was not altogether new. The first International Polar Year (IPY) occurred in 1882-83, just before the imperial knife was readied for carving up Africa.6 This multinational cooperative research venture at latitudes beyond the polar circles was a recognition that much of atmospheric circulation and accompanying meteorology were affected strongly by the polar regions, and that navigation by magnetic compass would benefit greatly from investigations near the magnetic poles. Moreover, as was well known to all, working in the polar regions was difficult, dangerous, and costly, and therefore nations were willing to undertake cooperative ventures to share both risks and costs, and to keep a geopolitical eye on one another. Most of the research expeditions of this first IPY were to the Arctic, but three went to Antarctica. The second IPY took place a half century later, during the Great Depression, again focusing principally on the Arctic. A third IPY had deployments occurring throughout 2007-9.


The International Geophysical Year (IGY) of 1957-58 was an extraordinary scientific and geopolitical success. Perhaps it was because of the urgency at that time to find a way to avoid repeating the many geopolitical mistakes of the past. Or perhaps it was simply that there was a great deal of scientific interest in the polar regions, and new logistical capabilities and new scientific technologies made 1957-58 a perfect window of opportunity. Nothing symbolized the new technology more than the launching of the first artificial satellites to orbit Earth—the Soviet Sputnik 1, in October 1957, and the United States’ Explorer 1, four months later. And nothing characterized the spirit of scientific cooperation better than the establishment of an international data center, where observations from all the national expeditions were to be archived and shared.

Most nations that participated in the IGY were delighted with its outcome, and wanted to perpetuate the science and cooperation model of activity in Antarctica. The principles of the IGY were translated into a diplomatic document known as the Antarctic Treaty, first adopted in 1959 and ratified in 1961 by the United States, the USSR, the United Kingdom, and nine other nations with active research programs on the white continent.

The treaty addressed many issues, but a few stand out clearly. The first article declared Antarctica a continent for peace, and laid out provisions to ensure that the continent would remain a demilitarized region. The second article declared Antarctica a continent for science, free and open everywhere for scientific investigation and cooperation. The treaty defused the conflicting territorial claims simply by saying that maps could be drawn however nations might wish, but no enforcement of claims or restrictions on travel would be allowed. Important wildlife conservation protocols were later adopted, as was a moratorium on exploration and exploitation of mineral resources that extends to the year 2043.

The treaty, reaffirmed in 1991 and today with more than forty signatories, has shown how shared governance by mutual consent has shaped a new style of international relations. That Antarctica stands alone as a continent for peace, multinational cooperation, scientific research, and non-exploitation is a remarkable outcome of the IGY and the subsequent Antarctic Treaty.


As I note earlier, land claims in the Arctic never became quite the issue that they did in the Antarctic. The countries surrounding the Arctic Ocean had more or less well-defined boundaries, and “ownership” of the few islands situated beyond obvious national affiliations was adjudicated through treaties. The question of how far national sovereignty extended into the adjacent Arctic Ocean was essentially moot because of the great difficulties the perennial sea ice imposed on resource exploitation. The relevant international law on this subject is embodied in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, to which the United States is not a signatory.

But in the mid-twentieth century, if the Arctic Ocean had no immediate commercial significance, it very much had military importance, and both the Soviet Union and the United States recognized this. While the International Geophysical Year had offered the promise of peaceful coexistence, at least in Antarctica, the cold war continued elsewhere. In 1958, the U.S. nuclear submarine Nautilus set out from Seattle on a nominally routine cruise in the North Pacific, but as with Captain Cook and HMS Endeavour in 1768, Nautilus also had secret orders: disappear beneath the surface of the North Pacific, and then enter the Arctic Ocean clandestinely through the Bering Strait. Nautilus was to explore and chart the topography of the Arctic Ocean basin, and make observations of the sea ice thickness overhead. And in another display of late-1950s scientific and engineering prowess—artificial satellites were the first, just a few months earlier—Nautilus broke through the sea ice and surfaced at the North Pole, sending home the terse message “Nautilus Ninety North.” In effect, the appearance of Nautilus at the pole was to announce to the world that no place in the oceanic domain was beyond the reach of American naval power. William R. Anderson, the skipper of Nautilus, brought a piece of Arctic ice home as a souvenir for Admiral Hyman Rickover, the curmudgeonly father of America’s nuclear submarine fleet.

The Soviets also recognized the military significance of the Arctic Ocean. If nothing else, it was a well-camouflaged shortcut that could bring the contiguous United States quickly within range of submarine-launched missiles. Over several decades the submarines of the cold war powers played cat-and-mouse with each other, and carefully monitored submerged traffic beneath the sea ice cover of the Arctic Ocean. A by product of this activity was an ever-increasing archive of scientific information about the Arctic: the topography of the ocean floor, the thickness of the sea ice from place to place, the nature of the magnetic field near the north magnetic pole, and the speed of sound transmission through the oceanic waters.

But it was not a single archive of scientific observations that was being compiled—there were two, one American and one Soviet. Detailed maps and charts of the Arctic bathymetry could reveal potential hiding places for submarines, and knowledge of the magnetic field could help military intelligence officers assess how the magnetic signature of a submarine could be suppressed or disguised. The United States and the Soviet Union were in effect conducting parallel and redundant geophysical surveys of the Arctic marine environment.

The cold war ended with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991. By the end of 1992, Boris Yeltsin and Viktor Chernomyrdin were occupying the offices of president and prime minister of the Russian Federation, respectively. In the United States, Bill Clinton was elected president and Al Gore as vice-president in 1992. The new leadership in both countries presented new opportunities for cooperation. At a summit meeting the next year, Clinton and Yeltsin established a bilateral commission, headed by Gore and Chernomyrdin, to promote cooperation between the former adversaries of the cold war. The initial focus of the commission was on space, energy, and high technology, but soon encompassed health, agriculture, science, and the environment as well. Within a year the two countries had signed an agreement that addressed environmental issues in the Arctic.

Gore and Chernomyrdin both recognized that each country possessed geophysical data about the Arctic Ocean that no longer offered military advantage, because each country had independently acquired the same data. In a remarkable turnabout from the cold war posture, they decided to release the data to the international science community. Depth soundings, water temperature and salinity measurements, ice thickness and ocean current maps, meteorological observations and much more would come out of security vaults and be placed in the public domain. The result was the publication of the U.S.-Russian Atlas of the Arctic Ocean in 1997. Vice-President Gore remarked that “some of science’s most sought-after data about our environment has literally ‘come in from the cold’ … a great portal of knowledge has swung open.”7

The Gore-Chernomyrdin vision was prophetic. The information released, acquired between 1948 and 1993, has provided the historical baseline with which we compare changes taking place today in the Arctic. It is because of this data that we can recognize the seriousness of the decline in Arctic summertime sea ice, a seasonal loss that has accelerated dramatically in the early years of the twenty-first century. And the spirit of international cooperation blossomed—the 2004 Arctic Coring Expedition (ACEX) comprised scientists and ships from a dozen nations, including my University of Michigan colleague Ted Moore, a marine geologist. ACEX returned with drill cores from the bottom of the Arctic Ocean that revealed fifty-five million years of fascinating high-latitude geological history8 and changing climate. Fifty-five million years ago the global climate was very warm, a condition brought about by a release into the atmosphere of the greenhouse gas methane, long sequestered beneath the ocean floor. It was the last time the entire planet was free of ice.

Currently, however, international attitudes about the Arctic are once again turning colder. The fast-diminishing sea ice in the Arctic Ocean has opened the possibility of easy access to vast reaches of the ocean that have been inaccessible for millennia or longer. Nations surrounding the Arctic Ocean are now imagining the possibilities of petroleum and natural gas, trade routes and fisheries. There is renewed interest in novel interpretations of the Law of the Sea as a vehicle of governance in the Arctic. This newly developing geopolitical turbulence will only be amplified by the fast-approaching disappearance of summer sea ice in the Arctic over the next few decades.


As I describe in chapter 6, we humans have left our mark on the land, air, and water everywhere we have settled. As our numbers and energy usage have grown dramatically, the human footprints on the globe are nearly ubiquitous. But if ever there were places seemingly unaltered by people, one would think first of the icy polar regions—Antarctica in the South, and Greenland and the Arctic Ocean in the North. Throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, the high latitudes were accessible only to explorers, whalers, sealers, scientists, and naval flotillas, with many expeditions a blend of these differently motivated purposes. What they all had in common were the facts that the polar regions were hard to reach, inhospitable in the extreme, dark half the year, and dangerous.

But such hazards did not discourage people with a sense of adventure (and a willingness to pay) from joining expeditions. Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s application to join Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Novaexpedition to Antarctica in 1910 was at first rejected, but when Cherry-Garrard contributed £1,000 (about $100,000 today) to the expedition, he was allowed to come along.

Access to the polar regions began to change in the 1960s, with the advent of transportation that enabled tourists and adventurers to reach high latitudes without benefit of military transport, scientific logistical support, or resource-driven commercial enterprises. The first ship custom-built for expeditionary tourism was the MS Lindblad Explorer, the vision of Lars-Eric Lindblad, a Swedish American who saw the business potential of tourism in the remote places of the world. Launched in 1969, the Lindblad Explorer took adventurous tourists to both the Peninsula and the Ross Sea sectors of Antarctica, through the Northwest Passage of the Canadian Arctic from the Atlantic Ocean to the Bering Sea, and to Svalbard, the Norwegian island at 78º north, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Arctic Ocean.

The Lindblad Explorer was painted bright red, and became known as the “Little Red Ship.” Explorer was not an icebreaker, but she had an ice-rated double hull that enabled her to move slowly through loose sea ice, gently nudging the ice fragments aside. At capacity Explorer could carry around a hundred passengers, and over the Antarctic summer season she could provide the Antarctic experience to around a thousand visitors.

When I first went to Antarctica in 1990, it dawned on me that more people would watch a single football game in the University of Michigan Stadium—the largest stadium in America, with a capacity of about 110,000—than had ever been to Antarctica in all of human history. A decade later I could not say that anymore. Ships galore had begun to bring tourists to Antarctica—small ships, big ships, icebreakers—all recognizing the tremendous interest in seeing the splendors of the Antarctic before Earth’s warming climate changed Antarctica forever. Today some fifty ships bring around forty-five thousand tourists to the Antarctic each year.

The most traveled touristic sea route to the Antarctic is from the southern tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula. This route is favored because it is the shortest route by far—only six hundred miles or so; the route from New Zealand is more than five times longer. This constriction in the Southern Ocean is called the Drake Passage, after Sir Francis Drake, a sixteenth-century privateer in the British Navy, well known for harassing Spanish vessels along the Pacific coasts of both North and South America.

Antarctica is only two sailing days from South America, but to reach it you must first cross the Drake Passage. Because of its narrowness and storminess, the passage has a well-deserved reputation for making a journey to Antarctica on occasion very uncomfortable, even in large modern ships with stabilizers. Forty-eight hours of rough seas is the price you must be prepared to pay to reach Antarctica—ten-foot swells, waves breaking over the bow and sending spray all the way to the navigational bridge. Cabin furniture can be sent careening, and crockery can slide off the dining room tables. There is an incessant thud as the ship, after being uplifted by a swell, comes crashing down on the sea; a thump, thump, thump as the turning propellers, temporarily lifted out of the water on the back of a big wave, carve their way back into the sea to resume their duty of pushing the ship southward. But there is the occasional surprise—sometimes the passage is so calm that the waters are affectionately called the Drake Lake.

Two days after departing South America, tourists reach the white continent. Blessedly the waters around the Antarctic Peninsula are sheltered and calm. Once in Antarctic waters, visitors can go ashore in small inflatable landing craft called Zodiacs, ten-passenger rubber boats powered by outboard motors—the vehicle of choice for both scientists and tourists in getting from place to nearby place in Antarctica. The landings are marine-style: leaping into shallow surf at the edge of the beach and scrambling ashore. They are appropriately called “wet landings,” although knee-high rubber boots usually keep the visitors dry. Once ashore, the tourists visit penguin and seal breeding areas, hike up steep terrain to view the extraordinary landscape of ice caps, glaciers, and mountains. In the Zodiacs they tour close to calving glaciers and into iceberg “graveyards,” sheltered bays where the wind drives many big bergs into temporary immobility. The Zodiacs offer unparalleled opportunities to become intimate with ice.

Many tourists are veteran world travelers who want to set foot on their seventh continent. For safety reasons, the rules of Antarctic tourism allow no more than one hundred people ashore at a given time. The task of ships avoiding one another at favorite destinations has grown into a scheduling and navigational challenge. Everyone who comes to the Antarctic imagines that they alone are having this once-in-a-lifetime experience. The last thing they want to see is another ship sitting at anchor in Paradise Bay, its passengers ashore enjoying a hike up to a special viewing point, or in Zodiacs exploring the face of a massive calving glacier. No, everyone wants a pristine Antarctica, unsullied even by the presence of others. Well before the tourist season begins, expedition leaders and ship captains submit requests to a clearinghouse for landing sites and times, much like booking admission times to popular museum exhibits weeks in advance. But in Antarctic waters, ever-changing wind, fog, and ice conditions frequently force last-minute shuffles in schedules. Advance planning is obligatory, but day-to-day improvisation is usually the reality.

Who guides tourists in the Antarctic? Aboard most ships there is a very small expedition staff of naturalists—ornithologists, marine biologists, geologists, glaciologists, historians, meteorologists, oceanographers—adventurous people who have gained Antarctic (or Arctic) experience, principally through scientific work. As the number of ships has grown, so has the need for naturalists familiar with the Antarctic. Today this small band of men and women probably number fewer than five hundred, distributed over some fifty ships for all or part of the season. Many have also spent years driving Zodiacs. The Antarctic setting can be a challenging one, with high winds, big waves, and bigger icebergs. Experience is at a premium—these folks are the ones who bear the responsibility of transporting tourists to the beach from ships at anchor offshore, and disembarking them safely at “unimproved” landing sites.

I have had the privilege of working with some of these remarkable people over the years. Russ Manning, affectionately known to colleagues as “Russ of the Antarctic,” is a distant relative of Nanook of the North, with a wild mop of multicolor hair that is never covered by a hat no matter how bad the weather. Russ is a fifteen-year veteran of the Royal Marines who later commanded the British Antarctic Survey scientific station on Signy Island, in the South Orkney Islands. He has boundless energy, can do anything that needs to be done, and sees hazards before they become hazards. Raymond Priestley, a geologist on both Ernest Shackleton’s 1907-9 Nimrod expedition and Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1910-12 Terra Nova expedition, reflected on the giants of Antarctic exploration with these words: “For scientific discovery give me Scott; for speed and efficiency of travel give me Amundsen, but when you are in a hopeless situation, when you are seeing no way out, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.” If today I were in dire circumstances and saw no way out, I’d get down on my knees and pray for Russ Manning.

Kim Crosbie—“the wee Scottish lassie,” as she is known to friends—did her Ph.D. dissertation research on Cuverville Island, along the Antarctic Peninsula, and later parlayed this experience into a job as an expedition leader with some of the tour ships. Small in stature but not in leadership, Kim could drag Zodiacs ashore in icy chest-high surf and be ready to lead hardy hikers up to the top of Cuverville through waist-deep snow. On one cruise, most of her Zodiac drivers happened to be women, who dubbed themselves the GODS, the “Girls Only Driving Squadron.” Kim is now involved in the management of tourism in the Antarctic through the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), and the co-author of A Visitor’s Guide to South Georgia.

T. H. (Tim) Baughman is a professor of history at the University of Central Oklahoma. As a graduate student at Ohio State University he joined an expedition to Marie Byrd Land, in Antarctica, as the token humanist, to provide some levity for the serious scientists at work in the Antarctic. Tim, as an eminent Antarctic historian with several scholarly books to his credit,9 lectures about Antarctic history aboard cruise ships. In the ship’s lecture theater he is a master storyteller, leaving audiences informed, spellbound, out of breath, with tears in their eyes. Ashore, after a dozen or more seasons in the Antarctic, he has finally learned to identify penguins.


Many of the same features that draw tourists to the Antarctic entice them to the Arctic as well. The Svalbard Archipelago, including the large island of Spitsbergen, sits between Norway and Greenland, well north of the Arctic Circle. Spitsbergen is easily accessible by both sea and air, and offers excursions to glaciers and rich wildlife viewing, including reindeer, walrus, arctic fox, polar bear, and a great variety of seabirds. The five thousand or so polar bears on Spitsbergen outnumber the human population two to one, and add a new requirement to the usual outfitting of tourist groups—a high-powered rifle in the hands of a well-trained guide.

Greenland itself is a miniature Antarctica, a landmass extending from 60º to 82º north, more than 1,500 miles south to north, and around 700 miles across. It is covered nearly entirely with a mile-thick sheet of ice, two miles at the thickest point—a volume of ice about one tenth that of Antarctica. A seven-mile-high glimpse of this frozen world can be had on flights from Europe to North America—the westward flight path usually passes close to or over the southern tip of Greenland, and on a cloudless day offers window-seat passengers an exquisite view of ice, rock, and water. The surrounding sea appears as a fabric of blue with tiny white polka dots—but they are not polka dots; they are icebergs that have spilled off Greenland, into the sea. And a closer look shows that the icebergs are not randomly adrift, but are arrayed in huge gyres tens of miles across—giant, slowly swirling eddies on the fringes of the northward-bound Gulf Stream.

But an overflight is not real tourism—it just whets the appetite for close-up encounters with the polar ice. That takes place at the surface. Small ships with tourists venture into the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay between Canada and Greenland for iceberg viewing and fjord cruising along the west coast of Greenland, following the eastern entry into the Northwest Passage. And overland excursions are possible in northern Norway, Sweden, and Finland, including the opportunity to stay in the Ice Hotel (yes, a hotel carved entirely in ice) in the village of Jukkasjärvi, in Swedish Lapland, well north of the Arctic Circle.

The economic strains that followed the breakup of the former Soviet Union in 1989 forced the Russian fleet of icebreakers and polar research vessels to find other sources of revenue to support operations and maintenance. These ships entered the tourist trade in the polar regions, with several small research ships now regulars in providing tourism to the Antarctic. But in the Arctic, the big draw is the North Pole, and only massive icebreakers can be counted upon to grind a path to the pole through the Arctic sea ice.

The departure point for polar trips is commonly Murmansk, in the far northwest of Russia, a year-round ice-free port situated well north of the Arctic Circle, but warmed by wisps of the Atlantic Gulf Stream that wrap around Scandinavia into the Russian Arctic. Murmansk lies about 1,500 miles from the North Pole; from there, it takes the better part of a week to reach the pole by sea. The remote Franz Josef Islands mark the halfway point, and offer a rich array of polar wildlife, as well as a piece of the history of polar exploration. Norwegian explorers Fridtjof Nansen and Fredrik Hjalmar Johansen wintered there in 1896-97, following their unsuccessful attempt to reach the North Pole.10

The route from Franz Josef Land to the North Pole is a hard slog, but it is the kind of work that big icebreakers are built for. Sea ice ten to twenty feet thick forms a solid collar around the pole, through which a channel must be opened. One of the veteran Arctic icebreakers is the Russian ship Yamal, a nuclear-powered behemoth of some twenty-three thousand tons based in Murmansk. Icebreakers do not wedge ice apart with a sturdy knife-edge bow; they ride up onto the ice with a rounded hull and break it beneath them through their sheer mass. It is a very noisy process, repeated time and time again around the clock, as the ship inches to the pole. It is not a quiet, peaceful, serene approach of a ship slicing silently through the sea, but rather a continuous and audible application of industrial-strength brute force. Two to three days beyond Franz Josef Land, Yamal arrives at 90º north. The passengers clamber down on the ice, form a circle around the pole for an arrival “ceremony,” and then have a picnic on the ice. But the sea ice platform for the picnic table is proving less reliable—in August of 2000, Yamal arrived at the pole to discover only open sea.


Neither the Arctic nor the Antarctic is a forgiving environment, a reality well known or quickly learned by the early explorers. Already there have been several mishaps that should raise the cautionary flag for polar tourism. In 1977, Air New Zealand began flyovers to Antarctica, a long journey back and forth from New Zealand for a few hours of in-flight viewing of the Antarctic landscape. This particular type of tourism came to an abrupt end in 1979 when one planeload of tourists crashed into Mount Erebus near New Zealand’s Scott Station in the Ross Sea region. All 257 people aboard the aircraft perished.

On January 28, 1989, the Argentine supply vessel Bahía Paraíso struck submerged rocks and ripped her hull open shortly after leaving Palmer Station, a small U.S. research base on the Antarctic Peninsula. All the crew and tourists aboard took to lifeboats, and shortly thereafter were back at Palmer. The maximum capacity of Palmer is around forty people, so the influx of an extra two hundred placed substantial stress on the Palmer facilities. Two nearby tourist vessels, Explorer (the Little Red Ship) and Illyria, diverted to Palmer, picked up the survivors, and carried them northward to a Chilean base on King George Island, from which they were flown back to Argentina. Tides lifted Bahía Paraíso off the fatal rock, from which she drifted across the bay and rolled over in shallow water. Her rusting hulk can still be easily seen by passing ships today.

Probably the most visited destination along the Antarctic Peninsula is Deception Island, a heavily glaciated active volcano. Deception Island has a big interior caldera, analogous to Crater Lake in Oregon, but flooded with seawater because of a narrow breach in the wall of the volcano that connects the open sea with the sheltered interior caldera. The caldera has provided safe haven for mariners since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, and was the site of an extensive whaling operation in the early twentieth century. The breach through the wall of the volcano is visible from only one azimuth—from all other approaches Deception appears to be just another island in the South Shetland archipelago, hence the name Deception.

The passage from the open sea into the interior anchorage requires very careful piloting through the breach, because a big shallowly submerged rock ledge obstructs the middle of the channel. That obstacle restricts entry and egress of ships to an even narrower but deeper route close to the wall of the channel. The rock in the middle is perhaps the “best-known rock in Antarctica,” because over the 150 years or so that mariners have known of the narrow channel to the sheltered interior of Deception Island, the rock ledge in the center of the passage has been very well mapped and charted. Hundreds if not thousands of passages by explorers, whalers, scientific survey ships, and tourist vessels have made this dangerous spot abundantly clear. And for those who need a visual rather than cartographic reminder, there is a rusted hull of a broken ship just inside the caldera that offers mute testimony to the perils of ignoring this navigational hazard. Nevertheless, on January 30, 2007, the Norwegian cruise ship Nordkapp damaged her hull on the rock upon exiting the caldera, and was forced to retreat into the anchorage and seek emergency assistance from a British Antarctic Survey research vessel to evacuate the 280 passengers and some 50 nonessential crew members.

Ironically, the Little Red Ship Explorer, the pioneer of adventure tourism, ultimately went to rest at the bottom of the sea. In late 2007, in the Bransfield Strait, between the South Shetland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, Explorer hit ice that opened a ten-foot split in her hull, and began to take on water. All passengers and crew boarded lifeboats, and were rescued without loss of life, by the Nordnorge, another Norwegian cruise ship operating in Antarctic waters. Explorer had performed similar emergency duty for those taken off the sinking Bahía Paraíso two decades earlier. Within hours, Explorer rolled over and slipped beneath the surface. To those of us who had spent many happy days aboard her, it was a melancholy moment. Symbolically (but probably not environmentally) it seems a better fate for Explorer to rest on the ocean floor near Antarctica than to be ignominiously cut up for scrap in a Singapore shipyard. The official inquiry into this accident attributed the sinking in part to excessive speed while traversing an iceberg field.

The accidents continue. In early December of 2008, the Argentine cruise ship Ushuaia ran aground near Wilhelmina Bay, on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, and had to evacuate more than eighty tourists. Most of the crew remained aboard, trying to contain a fuel spill that surrounded the ship to a distance of a half mile. And in early 2009, the Ocean Nova ran aground in Marguerite Bay. All sixty-five passengers were evacuated to another cruise ship in the vicinity, which returned them to Argentina. The ship’s hull was dented but not pierced.


What are the consequences of so many ships and tourists coming to Antarctica? As a trip to Antarctica draws to a close, and the ship heads north for the return crossing of the Drake Passage to South America, many visitors to Antarctica become pensive. The impact of the continent on visitors is often partly spiritual; they have just experienced something only a privileged few can ever hope for. Their impressions always include a sense of how vast, how unoccupied, how unsullied, how pristine Antarctica is. They see it as a frozen outpost of creation without the ubiquitous overprint of humanity seen on all the other continents. And most visitors want it to stay that way, although one still hears the occasional inquiry as to when there will be hotels and casinos in Antarctica.

Inevitably I am asked, “Are we damaging Antarctica when we come here? Are we bothering the penguins and seals by inserting ourselves, however fleetingly, into their natural world?” The question is a thoughtful one, and as tourism in Antarctica has developed, so has the research examining the impact of relatively large numbers of visitors on the terrain and wildlife of the frozen continent. The International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators has developed behavioral guidelines for visitors, addressing wildlife viewing, avoidance of fragile moss-covered areas, safeguards to prevent the introduction of non-native plants and microbes, and other issues, such as noise, littering, graffiti, and removal of natural specimens and historical artifacts. The adage “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” is too lenient for the Antarctic—a footprint on a pad of moss may remain there for decades, so slow is the pace of regeneration in the polar environment.

Not surprisingly, there have been some adverse environmental consequences associated with the accidents involving tourist vessels. The grounding of the Bahía Paraíso in 1989 released between 160,000 and 180,000 gallons of fuel that within a few days produced an oil slick that spread over twelve square miles. Limpets and algal mats in the intertidal zone were significantly impacted, seabirds less so, and fish and marine mammals negligibly.11 In the cold environment of the Antarctic Peninsula, microbial degradation of the fuel spill was slow.

Research into the impacts of tourism on wildlife generally shows, however, that well-behaved tourists are more curiosities than disturbances to wildlife. Experiments on islands with separated penguin rookeries, where one breeding area is exposed to tourism and the other is sheltered from it, indicate few if any touristic impacts on breeding success.12 Tourists can go home comforted in the knowledge that they have been good stewards while in the blue-and-white Garden of Eden.

But that is only part of the answer about whether they have inflicted damage on the Antarctic landscape and ecosystems. When I am asked that question, I tell visitors that it is not what they do during their two weeks in Antarctica that damages the white continent. No, it is what we all do at home the other fifty weeks of the year that is damaging Antarctica. It is our intensive use of fossil carbon-based energy to fuel a seemingly insatiable consumptive lifestyle that is warming the planet and causing irreversible changes in Antarctica.

Globalization is more than telecommunications and an integrated worldwide economy. Earth’s atmosphere has always been globalized—when we deliver climate-changing greenhouse gases to the atmosphere in the Northern Hemisphere, it is not long before the effects of that atmospheric pollution are communicated to the rest of the world. The Antarctica that tourists see today is already different from the Antarctica encountered by nineteenth-century explorers, or even that seen by earlier tourists only two decades ago,13 and more changes are yet to come.