One-hundred-passenger Russian ice vessels anchor off the
dramatic coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula amid gigantic chocolate rock spires
covered with sugary powdered ice. Bundled travelers stand on the deck in awed
silence, gazing at this primordial earth before humans. What they may or may
not realize is that they are witnessing, in ecological terms, the new ground
zero. Average temperatures on the Western shore of this peninsula have soared
4.5 degrees Fahrenheit in 50 years, and nine degrees in summer--a shockingly
faster rate than the rest of the globe's warming trend. No matter how you look
at it, Antarctica is experiencing a melting death.
When I sailed to Antarctica a couple of years ago you could
have fooled me that the place was heating up. I kayaked for four days amid Windex-blue
icebergs and jagged-toothed leopard seals, nearly freezing my hands off under
layers of gloves. A group of us foolhardy types chose to camp outdoors on the
ice one night, but no one slept much in the midst of all the clattering teeth.
Antarctica is the closest I have ever felt to leaving the planet. It feels like
a separate entity floating in space. It is a place humans are not supposed to
own, and thank goodness a 1959 treaty made sure no country does.
Despite the unpleasantries of visiting the windiest, driest,
and coldest of all continents, over 15,000 tourists a year now make this ultimate
journey (which is more than all the tourists in the 1980s combined). And the
number is growing. About 20 international tour operators sell Antarctic cruises
now--the first all-gay cruise occurring in 2000 with Coda Tours. Olivia's inaugural
cruise happened in December 2004, and Alyson Adventures is planning a gay voyage
for next year, all paving the way for queer travelers to experience one of the
most profound expeditions of a lifetime.
It is not an understatement that this humanless land, which
holds 75% of the world's fresh water, is one of the keys to the future of life
on this planet. Antarctica's ice not only affects sea levels but ocean currents
and species migration as well. But the sea ice around Antarctica has retreated
by a fifth since the 1970s, and 2000 and 2002 experienced icebergs the size
of small states breaking off Antarctica's ice shelf; that is not exactly normal.
Antarctica's Adelie penguins, an ice-dependent species, have lost two thirds
of their numbers during the past 40 years.
To combat the negative impact of tourism, the International
Association of Antarctica Tour Operators was created in 1991. It encourages
member companies (on a voluntary basis) to follow strict, low-impact-on-the-environment
regulations. Nearly every current tour operator to Antarctica complies, but
as numbers increase, these guidelines are nearly impossible to police. Any tourist
to Antarctica can always take it upon themselves to be aware of things like
boating too close to whales and seals, stepping around in penguin rockeries,
feeding the wildlife, and other artificial intrusions that upset this animals-only
kingdom. Even if you never get to Antarctica, you can always support environmental
groups like the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace that help protect this ecosystem.
But despite the potential problems, the education of sending
travelers to this great and important continent cannot be underestimated. Only
through personal experience can we truly comprehend how magnificent and fragile
these last fortresses of the earth really are. And we can then begin in a very
personal way to move, both socially and politically, against the dangerous and
destructive trends our age is experiencing. Pushing against the quickening of
the environment's collapse may be the most significant gift we leave the next
generation. Be sure to be a part of it.