U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday called for tighter regulation of Antarctic tourism as delegates from 47 countries began a review conference of the now 50-year-old Antarctic Treaty.
Antarctic tourism, principally on cruise ships, has increased nearly ten-fold in the past 15 years and there is broad concern about tourism-related oil spills and damage to the delicate habitat of Antarctic penguins and other wildlife.
Giving the keynote address to a conference marking the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic Treaty, which preserved that land and ice shelves of the southern polar region for peaceful purposes, Secretary Clinton said strengthened environmental regulation is especially important as Antarctic tourism grows.
"The United States is concerned about the safety of the tourists and the suitability of the ships that make the journey south. We have submitted a resolution that would place limits on landings from ships that carry large numbers of tourists," she said. "We have also proposed new requirements for life boats on tourist ships to make sure they can keep passengers alive until rescue comes. And we urge greater international cooperation to prevent discharges from these ships that will further degrade the environment around Antarctica," she noted.
Limiting tourist access to the continent has taken on urgency because of the surge in visitors and recent cruise ship accidents. Two ships ran aground in Antarctic waters in the just completed tourist season and a Canadian-owned cruise ship hit an iceberg and sank off the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula in 2007. The more than 150 passengers and crew were rescued.
The U.S. plan would, among other things, prohibit ships carrying more than 500 passengers from letting them disembark. From smaller vessels only 100 people could go ashore at a time, under strict supervision.
About 400 delegates from around the world are attending the conference, which also includes member countries of the Arctic Council, which regulates activity in the northern polar region. The conference moves to the city of Baltimore after Monday's opening State Department events.
The conferences is chaired by Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store of Norway, whose country is an Arctic Council member and has recently opened a year-round scientific station in Antarctica.
He said all countries, and not just those with interests in the polar regions, should be worried about global climate change.
"The ice is melting, as we know, not only in the polar regions but also in most other ice-covered areas of the world affecting the eco-systems. It is also happening in the Himalayas, the Andes, and even on [Mount] Kilimanjaro," he said. "So take the billions who depend on the stable access of water from the Himalayas. Now, they may head toward decades of flooding and an eternity of drought. A very gloomy picture," he concluded.
The Norwegian foreign minister urged tighter maritime controls and more search and rescue cooperation among countries bordering the Arctic Ocean, given the prospect that wider areas of the ocean will be ice-free in the coming decades and open to greater shipping and energy exploration.