Climate change in Arctic leading to rise in adventure tourism

bobmcdonald-190.jpgBy Bob McDonald, Quirks & Quarks

Scientists and policy makers of the Arctic Council are meeting in Whitehorse this week to discuss the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. The concern is not just ships taking a shortcut across the top of the world or pollution from oil and gas activities, but also about the increasing number of tourists seeking a glimpse of the northern wilderness.

As climate change shrinks the Arctic ice cap, the newly exposed waters are open invitations for shipping, oil and mining companies, but also for high-end adventure tourists who can now experience the majesty of the far North from the comfort of luxury cruise ships.

While many people in northern communities welcome the tourist dollars, biologists fear the impact of all those thousands of new feet stomping across the tundra.
The Arctic Council is an eight-country panel, including Canada, that issues reports on the state of the polar region, which is changing more rapidly than other parts of the world. Average temperatures have already risen, spring is arriving earlier, permafrost is melting, the ocean is becoming warmer and larger areas of ice are vanishing every summer.  

Scientists are concerned about the effects these changes are having on the biodiversity of the region. Everything from plants to migrating birds, through fish stocks to caribou and polar bears, are being affected by the altered conditions. Now, there is a new, increased presence of humans, drawn there by oil and gas reserves, diamonds, clear passage between Europe and Asia and tourism.

Cruise ships are now able to reach areas previously blocked by ice and allow people from the south access to pristine fjords, calving glaciers, icebergs and unique wildlife - experiencing the same wonder as tourists of the last century, who first explored the Serengeti Plains of Africa.

But as we have seen in so many parts of the world, when people flock to wilderness areas to see nature at its purest, eventually, their presence ruins the very wilderness they came to appreciate. Forests are carved by highways and cleared for parking lots, resorts and campgrounds.  Park managers are always faced with the delicate balance between allowing people access to nature without letting them destroy it in the process.

The Arctic is even more vulnerable because conditions are so harsh that any damage to the land takes a long time to recover.
The challenge facing scientists in the North is monitoring those changes over such vast areas of wilderness. There simply are not enough scientific mukluks in the snow to keep track of the effect climate change and humans are having on plants, animals and the marine environment. So they are asking for help, through citizen science.

The Arctic Council is setting up a system of reporting by people living and working in the North. That includes indigenous communities and traditional hunters. But this is also an opportunity for the tourist trade to make a contribution.

Northern adventure tours usually include biologists, ornithologists, historians, anthropologists - even this science journalist - who provide educational lectures throughout the voyage, as well as lead expeditions on land, to provide context.

So why not put all those people who snap pictures of themselves under the midnight sun to work - by taking part in bird counts, animal spotting, documenting plant species and reporting on the state of receding glaciers? After all, people rush to the railing of a ship when whales or polar bears are spotted. It wouldn't take much more to record the species, time and location of those animals, which would then become important data sets that would fill in the gaps missed by scientific observers.

People return from vacations with lots of pictures and stories. It would be even more satisfying, knowing those experiences contributed to the preservation of the last great wilderness on the planet.