Antarctica is the only continent with a permanent population of zero, and it has a strong international regulation system governing human activities from research to tourism. One might question whether an environmental history of Antarctica, beyond natural history, could therefore even be possible. While I am no native or citizen of Antarctica—these categories do simply not exist—having traveled more than once to the frozen continent and performed historical research I think I can provide some idea of its environmental history.
Human interaction with Antarctica can roughly be divided into four periods:
The environmental impact of human activity in Antarctica was limited for the first two periods, owing to the small number of visits. Even the feeding of sled dogs with freshly hunted seals was marginal for Antarctica’s ecosystem at large. Of course, the story would be completely different when including the Southern Ocean, South Georgia, and the Antarctic whaling (and sealing) industry that brought a number of species to the brink of extinction, but let me focus on Antarctica itself and even exclude the one Antarctic island—Deception Island—where a shore-based whaling station was established.
This limited environmental impact changed with the advent of large-scale Antarctic research in the late interwar period, and with military activities in the 1940s. While the total number of people coming to Antarctica was still small—for example British Operation Tabarin (1944–45) involved only a few people—US Operation Highjump (1946–47) consisted of a task force of nearly 5,000 men. Argentina, Chile, the Soviet Union and other nations developed Antarctic programs too, bringing an ever- increasing number of people to the continent.
Human activities in Antarctica now had the potential to affect its fragile ecosystem. Attitudes to the environment were not always comparable to earlier expeditions: many went in search of adventure or to avoid other military deployments. Since for example Operation Highjump’s main goal was to test military operational capabilities, rather than scientific knowledge, protection of the pristine, vulnerable Antarctic landscape and ecosystem was not a primary objective. The US-operated East Base on Stonington Island, established by the US Antarctic Service Expedition (1939–41) and hastily evacuated in 1941 due to increasing international tensions, demonstrates as such. Behind the station buildings lies a junkyard, where two tracked vehicles fall apart amongst scattered debris. Closer lies a Wright-Cyclone radial engine, scattered insulation and building materials, and rusted tools. Attitudes matched that of other military installations of the same period: anything no longer needed was left behind. At large stations, such as late-1950s McMurdo, waste was placed on sea ice close to the station. When the ice melted in the spring, it would drop to the ocean floor. In other words: out of sight, out of mind.
Human activities later also extended to nuclear power. From 1962 to 1972, the United States operated a portable PM-3A nuclear power plant at McMurdo: “Nukey Poo” was shut down in 1972 due to high costs, but its operational history included a list of incidents. The PM-3A reactor was dismantled and shipped back to the US in 1973, but the area was declared uncontaminated only following a decade of cleaning.
With the Antarctic Treaty coming into force, research station operations became somewhat standardized. Core elements included the exclusion of economic operations and a ban on raw material extraction from Antarctica, on military operations and installations, and on the disposal of redundant materials. The treaty became a positive example of international cooperation, but it also caused some unintended developments. Now, with those nations operating research stations more widely influencing Antarctica’s multinational governance system, the treaty provides an incentive for research. Furthermore, with claims for sovereignty suspended, the establishment of research stations and large-scale scientific Antarctic research programs became the only means of positioning a nation for justifying future claims for sovereignty.
Consequently, the number of nations involved in Antarctic research grew: China, for example, started developing large-scale programs. While the treaty guaranteed that new research installations would adhere to strong environmental standards, their increase would have some environmental impact, even if following strict rules. Today there are nine year-round research stations on King George Island, with a total overwintering crew of around 300 people. The Chilean “Base Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva” station even included a civilian settlement, comprising a schoolhouse, gas station, and bank. The station is connected to others on King George Island by a dirt road: it is becoming obvious that this is no longer simply scientific research in a pristine Antarctic environment.
Tourism is also an important factor in Antarctica’s environmental history. It is a very small niche, and is a sector well aware of environmental issues with a developed set of guidelines. Although the first tourists travelled to Antarctica as early as the 1920s—as passengers on the Falklands Islands mail ship Fleurus—the industry began in 1969, when the Lindblad Explorer offered regular cruises to Antarctica. The concept became a success despite the high costs: today, over 30,000 passengers cruise Antarctic waters every year, and of these around 20,000 passengers take small and medium-sized ships.
Ironically, while most tourists travelling to Antarctica want to see a pristine polar landscape, the sheer numbers of tourists could destroy it. While tourists bringing barley seeds to Antarctic Peninsula region—as happened in 2012—might be an extreme and rare exception, the huge numbers of tourists, scientists, and support staff carrying seeds of non-native plants is not. As most cruise ships sailing to Antarctica operate in a small region, some places are visited several times per week in the short austral summer. Even if all regulations are followed, well-beaten paths are clearly visible in many areas.
A ban on cruise ships’ use of heavy fuel oils, issued by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) mitigates human impacts on the Antarctic. However, the need for environmental humanities research can no longer be denied, only a century after the first tourist visits.
Antarctica might be comparable to a variation of Schrödinger’s Cat. Without going we will not know if the ecosystem is healthy, while going might have a negative impact. It is not a question of whether or not we need to go to Antarctica, but rather a question of scale. How many scientists and research stations do we need? How many tourists are acceptable? Who is allowed to go to Antarctica, beyond who can afford to do so? An environmental history of the continent would remain incomplete without such questions, yet there is no definite answer to them. Any response needs to be negotiated by global society, forming another chapter in our understanding of Antarctica’s environmental history.