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Growing Public Interest in Antarctica

Until the middle of the 20th century only explorers and technical staff were the main visitors to Antarctica. With the establishment of the first research stations the continent became the preserve of scientists. More recently Antarctica has slipped into public awareness, both as a wilderness in need of conservation and as a venue for tourism. The two trends began together: Tourists from the 1960s onward drew attention to accumulating garbage and abandoned buildings littering Antarctica—relics of installations used and discarded by scientists. Motion pictures and other forms of popular culture have made penguins in particular a symbol of endangered wildlife in the Antarctic region.

In the 1970s and 1980s growing environmental organizations such as Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) effectively organized public opinion against practices at the bases that impacted the natural environment, such as construction near animal breeding grounds, improper disposal of containers and chemical wastes, and open burning of garbage. Largely as a result of public pressure, many stations cleaned up former dumping sites. They also began disposing of waste by shipping it back to the countries operating the bases. Environmental groups continue to oppose mining in Antarctica and to press for high standards of environmental protection. Some seek to have Antarctica managed as a world park, a status akin to a national park in the United States. This would protect Antarctica from mining, military activities, and permanent human settlement.

Tourism has grown slowly since its beginning in 1958. Tens of thousands of tourists visit Antarctica annually between November and March. Most travel by ship and only go ashore for brief periods, so they require very few facilities on land. Several thousand more tourists take sightseeing flights over the continent from countries in the southern hemisphere. Although some environmental groups feel that an increase in tourism would undoubtedly increase its impact, on its current scale tourism makes few demands on the environment and does not interfere significantly with scientific activities. In introducing nonscientists to the scenery, wildlife, and mystery of Antarctica, tourism may well be helping broaden public interest in Antarctica, thereby ensuring a safer future for this most remarkable area of the world.

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