When the cruise ship MS Explorer hit an iceberg near the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula two months ago, concern understandably focused on the human lives at stake. Thanks to a well-coordinated rescue effort, however, all of the 150-odd passengers and crew were safely evacuated in lifeboats before the 239-foot vessel sank, then picked up a few hours later by a Norwegian merchant ship.
Since the rescue, the accident has raised environmental and regulatory questions. Most immediately, government officials and green groups in nearby Chile and Argentina worry what effects the ship’s sinking might have on the area’s rich marine life. Though the MS Explorer now lies on the ocean floor some 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) underwater, Chilean scientists early last month reported that fuel from the ship had formed a slick at one point measuring five kilometers (3.1 miles) long.
More broadly, experts in the two countries are concerned that Antarctic tourism regulations lack uniformity and strength, making the region more vulnerable than it should be to such accidents. The margin for error, they say, can be alarmingly small.
“We could be talking about something as simple as only one vessel,” says Mariano Memolli, director of Argentina’s Antarctic Institute, a government-run research center. “If just one person in that vessel is not fully qualified, then there could be serious environmental damages. We have seen this already. Humans in Antarctica have produced catastrophes.”
The most urgent issue has been MS Explorer’s fuel. A team of Chilean scientists that returned from the Antarctic in early December told Chile’s daily La Tercera newspaper that fuel from the sunken vessel has spread into a five-kilometer slick. Subsequently, the Chilean Navy used an icebreaker to physically break up the slick, which by late last month was reported to be less than a square kilometer in size.
The slick--consisting mainly of diesel fuel--is toxic, and could harm seals, sea lions, penguins and other animals that inhabit the area, experts say. It’s unclear how much more fuel still might rise from the ship, affecting fish and other marine life on which the region’s birds and sea mammals prey. According to the Chilean Navy, the MS Explorer at the time of the accident had more than 185 cubic meters of diesel fuel, 1,000 liters of gasoline, and roughly 24 cubic meters of lubricants.
Overall, experts are divided on the potential long-term impacts. Antonia Fortt, director of the oceans program for the green group Oceana’s South America office, worries they could be substantial.
“The effects of this sinking are going to be especially severe,” Fortt says. “The accident site is an area of high and very particular biodiversity, and the marine wildlife is going to suffer. Damage caused by oil spills is long term because it is so difficult to clean up. Consequently, we are talking about permanent damage to the area’s wildlife population.”
Fuel type key
But according to Memolli of Argentina’s Antarctic Institute, the environmental consequences likely will be a great deal less severe than they could have been—in part on account of the type of diesel fuel aboard Explorer. “There definitely will be an environmental effect,” Memolli says. “After all, we are talking about a ship that is 1.5 kilometers below the surface and has materials coming from it. Still, the marvel is that the fuel used is lighter than many others and should evaporate quicker.”
Argentine and Chilean officials fear that unless uniform and rigorous Antarctic tourism regulations are developed and implemented, the risk of destructive environmental impacts from the industry only will grow.
Use of Antarctica is governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, which designates the continent as a scientific preserve and prohibits military activity there. Antarctic tourism was virtually non-existent when the main treaty was signed in 1961 by the 12 countries originally active on the continent. (The signatories now number 46.) Since then, however, tourism has been growing—from fewer than 1,000 tourists in the 1980s to 37,552 last year.
Some 80 companies from 14 countries belong to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), an industry association that sets guidelines for tourism in the region. In order to become members, companies must pledge to meet certain standards concerning, for example, the number of tourists on board each ship, how close they can get to animals and the amount of experience crews on Antarctic tours must have. Another, smaller such body is called the Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators.
Officials say such associations and the Antarctic Treaty fail to adequately address concerns about such issues as the amount and type of fuel ships use, the presence of other potentially toxic components onboard, the thickness of ship hulls and how to respond to spills.
Complicating matters, companies that are neither part of the IAATO nor from a country that is part of the Antarctic Treaty do not have to follow the tour-operators regulations at all.
Some individual countries do impose regulations on ships that leave for Antarctica from their territory. For example, Chile and Argentina require captains of all Antarctica-bound ships to attend a month-long course in Antarctic navigation. Still, experts insist that stricter and more uniform regulation is necessary.
Fuel isn’t the only pollutant of concern, says Samuel Leiva, Greenpeace Chile’s Ocean Campaign Coordinator. “We also are worried about parts of cruise ships such as the paint and the heating and air conditioning systems,” Leiva says. “Those could definitely affect the Antarctic’s marine life.”
Memolli adds that human error often has been the cause of cruise ship accidents. He suggests that all Antarctic Treaty signatory countries ought to, as Argentina and Chile do, require special navigation courses for captains of Antarctica-bound ships. “We are worried that the Antarctic tourism industry will grow without regulations,” Memolli says.
Critics of current practices recommend vessels visiting Antarctica be required to meet stricter standards—regarding hull thickness, for instance—remove hazardous materials and install late generation safety equipment such as sensors that sound when icebergs are near. They also call for fixed vessel routes where ice is relatively scarce. And they call on countries that are home to the majority of tourists visiting Antarctica—European nations, the United States and Canada—to become more involved in promoting such solutions.
- Matthew Malinowski