Jeff Reifman, a recent traveler to Antarctica, is a technologist in Seattle. Click here to view Jeff’s Antarctica photo album.

Monday, 6 Jan 2003

SEATTLE, Wash.

Somehow I knew the Antarctic would be unique and amazing — and it was, despite the 15,000 pounds of C02 emissions created by my journey there and back.

Paradise Harbor on the Antarctic Peninsula.

I returned last week from a 10-day eco-tour of the Antarctic Peninsula. The majority of Antarctic tours take place on the peninsula, as it is the most geographically accessible hotspot for wildlife activity during the brief Antarctic summer. The peninsula juts out from the northwest side of the Antarctic continent, making it relatively accessible from South America.

I decided to go to the Antarctic while browsing travel catalogs last summer to plan a vacation. The idea of the place seemed to resonate with a younger part of me that remembered the wonder and fascination I felt when I first learned about whales, polar bears, and the like. As it turns out, there are no polar bears in Antarctica — they only live in the Arctic — but I didn’t realize this until about a month after I booked my trip.

Because I have not traveled extensively, I felt no personal guilt about going to Antarctica. I’d listened to enough of my friends’ travel tales to feel that it was “my turn” (at least in the entitled mind of a first-world tourist). I wanted to see Antarctica before the impacts of global warming might change it forever. Remembering the 1990 movie The Freshman with Mathew Broderick and Marlon Brando, in which wealthy socialites paid substantially to dine on endangered species, I joked with friends that I hoped to drink a martini with the last of the Antarctic ice. (That opportunity actually arose, but I missed my chance, because I’d unwittingly asked for a ginger ale instead.) Still, I worried about the impact of my trip — and the probable environmental impact of future travelers.

Strangely enough, the greatest impact on the growth of Antarctic tourism stems from the break up of the Soviet Union. That political reshuffling has meant that, over the past 10 years, many ice-class vessels and their capable crews have become available for tourism operators looking to charter trips. But luckily for the region’s natural resources, Antarctica remains relatively geographically and financially inaccessible to most of the world.

To get there, I flew from Seattle to Atlanta to Miami to Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina (the very tip of South America), a total of about 36 hours of travel. Round trip, I traveled approximately 17,312 miles. According to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s estimate of 48 miles per gallon per passenger for airline travel, I was responsible for the burning of more than 360 gallons of airline fuel.

Leaving Ushuaia aboard the M/V Orlova.

From Ushuaia (which I expected to be a sleepy, remote seaside town but turned out to have an active tourism industry, somewhat to my disappointment), I boarded a Russian ship chartered by Quark Expeditions for a 10-day voyage, beginning with a two-and-a-half day crossing over the usually formidable seas of the Drake Passage. Our ship, the M/V Orlova, burned diesel fuel at a rate of 142 gallons per hour, or 3,408 gallons per day. With approximately 90 passengers on board, my personal share for the entire voyage was 378 gallons. Given that the older ship’s exhaust was likely more environmentally damaging than that of the airplanes, my trip probably created more than 15,000 pounds of CO2 emissions.

The website ClimateTicket.org recommends that air travelers mitigate their impact on the environment by investing $5 per hour of flight in green energy alternatives. (While some web sites encourage you to invest in tree planting to absorbs CO2 emissions, recent research suggests that this may not be an effective long term solution, as many trees later re-release CO2.) Although I have not yet selected an appropriate charitable organization, adjusting for the ocean travel as well, my personal Antarctica climate mitigation “tax” will require a donation of approximately $450.

Part of the appeal of Antarctica is that it remains one of the few places in the world where you can see a relatively pristine ecosystem not visibly exploited by humans. In the age of the anti-environmental Bush administration, it’s important to reflect on the kind of world we could preserve and restore if we had enough self-awareness to question our entitlement to natural resources.