A Changing Antarctica Draws 'Doomsday' Tourists The popularity of Antarctic cruises is partly due to so-called doomsday tourists — people who want to see the continent's coastline before warmer temperatures melt the ice. But the growing traffic may actually help defend the continent from environmental threats.
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A Changing Antarctica Draws 'Doomsday' Tourists

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A Changing Antarctica Draws 'Doomsday' Tourists

A Changing Antarctica Draws 'Doomsday' Tourists

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As part of our yearlong series Climate Connections with National Geographic, NPR has been following more than 200 passengers aboard a pleasure ship to Antarctica. This kind of travel is sometimes called Doomsday tourism. It's when people go to see natural beauty before it's gone for good. Antarctica's coastline is reportedly changing as warmer temperatures melt the ice.

NPR's Gwen Thompkins reports that experiencing the continent changes people in a way that could help save it.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Here at one of the finest cocktail lounges in the Antarctic Circle, Carol Hughes is sipping a mystery drink from a wine glass. It's after dinner on board a luxury cruise liner, and Hughes, an English clinical nurse, says whatever she's tasting is better than anything else she's had tonight.

Ms. CAROL HUGHES (Clinical Nurse): It's lovely. It feels cleaner, much smoother. I think there's got to be something in there. Slightly - something to do with fish. I would say.

THOMPKINS: What Carol Hughes doesn't know is that she's sipping an iceberg.

Ms. HUGHES: Is that the one that the penguin was walking over?

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: Antarctica, like every other continent, is too big to describe in one take. But Carol Hughes's remarks on melted iceberg water are an awfully good start. Antarctica is lovely. It does feel cleaner, and it has something to do with fish.

Much of the continent remains a mystery, however, a cold and curious void. So most people learn the facts and fill in the rest with feeling. Every cabin on our ship has a book telling us how remote the continent is — what can live here, what can't. And yet all 159 pages amount to a single line of verse from the poet Pablo Neruda:

There all ends and doesn't end. There all begins. Rivers and ice part. Air is married to snow.

Ms. KARIN STRAND (Expedition Leader): Take some time and simply stop and reflect a little bit about what you're seeing because it's pretty overwhelming.

THOMPKINS: Karin Strand is the expedition leader on our ship. She says put down your camera and get into the spirit of this place. You've got to appreciate the beauty, the loneliness, the unlikeliness of this continent that Aristotle suspected was here but could never prove. Only a smidgen of the world's population has ever seen Antarctica. So Strand says that if you decide to come this far, don't blow it.

Ms. STRAND: Unless you stop and take a look once in a while you will miss it. Yes of course you will see it, but you won't see it. So to stop and just take it in. I mean, I am Norwegian and I thought that I had seen enough snow and ice for the rest of my life just living where I am. It's just incredible. It is a feeling. It's not like you can explain it with pictures or film, really. You just have to be there.

THOMPKINS: Many of the people who visit the perpetual winter of Antarctica are in the autumn of their lives. They want to unlock the mystery of the place. They also want to learn about the effects of climate change here, why the ice is melting. But more than anything, they want to have fun.

Aroon Patel is 70 years old. He walks with a cane. And at one of our last boat landings on the Peninsula, Patel slid down a glacier on his tush.

Mr. AROON PATEL (Cruiser): It was like a roller coaster on your bum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PATEL: One of the best ride I've ever had in my life. At age 70, you find something like this, different. You know, it's wonderful. Wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

THOMPKINS: And that's not the only thing that got his backfield in motion.

(Soundbite of song, "Yeah")

Mr. LIL' JOHN (Singer): (Singing) Let's go.

Mr. USHER RAYMOND (Singer): (Singing) And then I got to keep it real now…

THOMPKINS: On the tail end of our voyage, the ship's crew put on an evening of entertainment that included music and lyrics by Usher, Lil' Jon and Ludacris. There's something surreal about being on a boat in the near-frozen middle of nowhere and listening to men talk about women in their birthday suits. But you know what they say: Hip hop is the poetry of the streets. Even here, where there are no streets. Yeah.

(Soundbite of song, "Yeah")

Mr. RAYMOND: (Singing) Yeah…

THOMPKINS: What the people onboard the ship don't know is that they're testing an important scientific principle: does the very act of observing something change it? In Antarctica, the answer is probably.

Antarctica — so clean, so pure — is now a hot destination. Armadas of ocean liners are troubling her cool, heavy waters. And tourists are sharing terrain vital to the continent's wildlife.

Again, Karin Strand.

Ms. STRAND: Just looking on the impact that human does, wherever we go, we have sort of a brutal way of imposing on nature really when we go somewhere. We destroy or we pollute or we throw garbage around. And I think that's our prime aim here. Let's keep it as a wilderness.

THOMPKINS: That means if anyone drops so much as a plastic bag in the water, Strand says, the ship will turn around and retrieve it.

Robyn Steegstra is guiding a group of Americans onboard the ship. She says Antarctic tourism has actually helped the continent. Bases that conduct scientific research along the coast have cleaned up their act.

Ms. ROBYN STEEGSTRA (American Guide): I remember 20 years ago or so when you were coming down at some of these bases, they looked like nothing more than dumps. The rusted material, the 20 or 30 years of rusting tin cans out back, the old machinery. We've had bases where they would go and pick up the - oh, you want to see a penguin? They'd go pick them up. They were just pushing them out of their way; there wasn't this concern for the wildlife.

But when people started visiting and seeing this, there's been an enormous change in the way the bases operate and the way the base conduct themselves regarding the environment and the wildlife. And that was largely due to visitors.

THOMPKINS: So the industry's bottom line appears to be that sometimes you've got to risk a little to get a lot. An international treaty prevents mining, drilling and dumping here. But tour operators say that Antarctica also needs goodwill ambassadors for its continued protection. And people like Carol Hughes, the English nurse who drank from the iceberg, can make pretty poetic ambassadors.

Ms. HUGHES: It's just absolutely magical. I don't think I should be the same person when I get home. It really makes you feel so humble to think that this is such a wilderness and that we have to preserve it at all costs, really. It's a special place and we mustn't spoil it. We must look after it.

THOMPKINS: After all, the best lines about Antarctica have been uttered by the people who've actually been here. Who said: glittering white, shining blue, raven black, in the light of the sun the land looks like a fairy tale? Roald Amundsen, the first explorer to reach the South Pole, that's who.

And perhaps Fritz Klein said it best. He and his wife came here from York, Pennsylvania. Klein is no expert on the threat of climate change to Antarctica. But now more than ever, he's dead set against anything or anyone marring the beauty of the continent.

How did he put it? Oh, yeah. They betta' neva'.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: Antarctica is changing, though, and you can find out how in our video at NPR.org/climateconnections.

(Soundbite of music)

SEABROOK: This is NPR News.

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