Antarctica: A great trip or a guilt trip?

(CNN) — Two things on the rise in the Antarctic peninsula: temperatures and tourism.

An unprecedented 17.5 C (63.5 F) was recorded by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) at the Argentine Experanza research base in March 2015 — pretty much T-shirt weather. Meanwhile, as of July 2017, 63 vessels are registered with the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO), including some big names in cruising, such as Hurtigruten, Holland America Line, Seabourn, Silversea and Celebrity Cruises. Between them they brought around 38,500 visitors on tourist expeditions to the white continent in the 2015–16 season — an increase of nearly 10,000 over the past decade.

But are these fuel-guzzling trips ultimately harmful to the region — or can they also be a force for good?

Explorers in bright parkas survey the Antarctic ice. On board Lindblad Expeditions’ National Geographic Explorer in early February 2017, there are typical Antarctic tour scenes. Passengers armed with binoculars and telephoto zoom lenses mill around deck in complimentary bright orange parkas adorned with a variety of patches attesting to their intrepid adventures. The ice-class ship smashes its reinforced hull through a vast expanse of pack ice, a crack riddling across the surface towards a king penguin that regards the vessel with a backward glance before waddling off. For these voyagers, at least, the journey south is over. The sea is simply far too frozen to progress.

Rite of passage

“I’m kinda glad we’re not going to make it down past the Antarctic Circle,” says on-board naturalist and photo instructor, Eric Guth, who — as part of his role with Lindblad Expeditions — has been taking part in the Extreme Ice Survey project founded by James Balog, by setting up cameras in Antarctica to monitor glacial recession. For many polar vacationers, it’s a rite of passage to cross that invisible boundary. “It’s just that though,” he argues. “It doesn’t look any different; there’s no neon flashing signs. It’s just a pointless exercise for the sake of saying you’ve done something abstract, while burning tons of fossil fuel in the process.”

He has a point. Contributing to climate change really isn’t in the spirit of visiting this pristine wilderness. It makes you wonder whether we should be visiting at all, leaving our dirty great carbon footprints in the snow. “Increasing tourism in Antarctica is something we need to be mindful of, with all these ships burning fossil fuels,” says John Durban, a British killer whale researcher from the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who is conducting whale and orca population research in Antarctica as a guest of Lindblad. “But there are a number of threats down here, ranging from the small-scale disturbance from tour ships to large-scale climate change.”

Read more at CNN.