Antarctica – a continent of immense size; the fifth largest on the planet even. It makes up what is approximately a tenth of the Earth’s land mass alone. However, it has been shown to clearly be far from inhabitable, with the strongest known winds on the planet, reaching up to 190mph and temperatures as incredibly low as -90˚C. The continent is entirely surrounded by water – the Southern Ocean to be specific. It is this sort of terrain that has attracted many tourists and world-famous explorers from all over the world to travel to Antarctica on international Antarctic expeditions.

The Antarctic environment is unique and amazing. It is not only the coldest, windiest, driest and most uninhabited continent on earth, but it is also home to some of the most interesting animals. It is this fascinating environment that allows them to survive. Without it, the entire food chain would be affected.

However, this continent of surreal beauty is currently being threatened by many forms of human activity.

Despite the many campaigns, laws passed and rules regarding it enforced, Antarctica is up against rapidly increasing threats, from global warming, loss of sea and land ice and over-fishing in the region to pollution and many more constantly growing issues. One of the long-term concerns that may be the largest threat overall is the potential for oil, gas and mineral exploitation on the continent and in the surrounding ocean.

While the Antarctic Treaty prohibits commercial mineral extraction on the continent, this obligation is subject to alteration and doesn't prevent the countries that haven't signed onto the treaty from doing so. The treaty also doesn't prevent offshore exploration, which is constantly becoming more likely a problem as technology progresses.

The Antarctic Treaty is still known to be fairly effective at managing the issues of mining and exploitation, but new problems are cropping up all the time and there is still a lot of room for improvement.

Two years ago, nearly 38,000 tourists visited the Antarctic Peninsula.

An increase in visitors causes more disturbances to the already delicate ecosystem, more pollution and more opportunities to bring organisms onto the continent from elsewhere in the world. With visitors can come diseases which could affect organisms in Antarctica. Since Antarctic organisms would have not come into contact with it before, and there for would not be used to it, entire species could be wiped out by something as simple as the common cold due to the lack of immunity built up against it.

Two years ago, nearly 38,000 tourists visited the Antarctic Peninsula.

Species also can be more directly affected. For example, fishing boats go after krill and other species, placing more vulnerable populations under pressure. The population of krill in the area has declined by over 80% since 1991.

Thousands of tourists come and go all the time, mostly on cruise ships which stop at Antarctic locations for just a few days, but this number is increasing fast and some daring visitors are now taking on adventurous sports such as ski-hiking, scuba-diving, snowboarding and mountaineering. Uncontrollable, this sudden invasion of people is rapidly expanding the issues of waste management and their actions are having a negative effect on the local ecosystem.

Aforementioned waste also has the possibility of being mistaken for food and consumed by native wildlife. As aforementioned, the more boats visiting the continent, the more significant the probability of a catastrophic oil spill is.

Essentially, almost everywhere that humans have ventured has taken some drastic changes – sometimes intentional and sometimes not.

There are a number of ways which could be used to control this activity and make it more sustainable, but the question is – even if there were rules, would people follow them?

If the Antarctic environment is supposed to be kept a sustainable one whilst at the same time allowing tourists to visit, there would need to be very strict controls in place. There would have to be no permanent development on the continent. There would have to be control of access to sites, and of the type of tourism activities permitted. Also, there would need to be penalties in place for any who damage the land, wildlife and environment.

If it is to be so, then people should be able to visit there, admire the beautiful and unique environment and leave there with nothing taken but photographs, and nothing left behind but footprints.

Although the Environmental Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty does not specifically address tourism, the Antarctic Treaty goes some way to minimise the impact of tourists. It concerns the protection of Antarctic wildlife and areas, the respecting of scientific research, personal safety and impact on the environment. But even with reduced impact per visitor, the increasing number of visitors could still have a considerable effect on the environment.

As said before, although the treaty does do its job in some aspect, the world is changing and there is still considerable room for improvement.