So you want to go see Antarctica before it melts into the ocean? Fine. But bear in mind that by stomping around down there, you're messing up the fragile environment even more.
To slow down this corrosive feedback cycle, the nations that are party to the Antarctic Treaty have endorsed a measure created by the United States that would limit tourist travel to the world's only uninhabited continent.
The Antarctic Treaty, the main parts of which went into effect back in 1961, forbids weapons testing and other military activity and sets aside Antarctica for scientific research, like drilling for the ice cores that can tell our planet's climate history. Should the countries in the treaty ratify the American proposal—and there doesn't appear to be any reason that they wouldn't—tourism will slow, at least as far as how many people will be on the ice at once. Boats with more than 500 people won't be allowed to reach the landing sites, and only 100 passengers can go on land at a time. One guide for every 20 people would have to accompany them. In true international diplomacy style, the agreement contains no penalties and tiptoes vaguely around how to actually enforce the rules, but at the least the countries involved can tell the tour operators to play by the rules and turn away giant ocean liners.
It's a sad situation in more than just the cataclysmic sense that our planet's largest ice formation is falling apart. It's likely that more people would care about "wastelands" like Antarctica and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge if they saw the icy majesty in person, and more people have been—Antarctic visitors rose from less than 7,000 in the 1993 season to more than 45,000 this year. But with carbon emissions contributing to the meltdown, it's hard to justify traveling thousands of miles to hang out with the penguins. Remember the flack Al Gore used to get for flying around the globe at the same time he was promoting "An Inconvenient Truth." And saving the environment isn't the only reason to limit tourism—tourists need saving, too. Two ships hit ground during this year's tourism season, which just ended.
Steve Wellmeier, the head of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators , told me that his organization oversees all the tourist trips to Antarctica and has been enforcing the same kinds of rules that are now being codified for years. The only ships with more then 500 passengers, he says, are "cruise-only" and don't go on the land. Still, he says, it's nice to see the rules made official, and for the U.S. to get a little good green publicity.
In any case, if you still want to see Antarctica and the recession hasn't destroyed your travel funds, you can. I don't blame you. Just remember what David Foster Wallace wrote about tourism. "It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience."