No joke, these trips to the other side of the world have a significant impact on our planet. As a glaciologist, I thought it was only fair to calculate the carbon cost of my voyage to Antarctica, as well as the emissions of our ship.
The idea does not come from me, it actually come from one of the most inspiring person I met on the ship last year. This person has been “carbon neutral” for a few years now. Way to go. So my plan for 2017 is to embark on the same journey. I’ve always found it a bit ironic to teach about the impacts of climate change on glaciers while flying around the world, driving snow scooters and taking helicopter trips. But it’s never too late to act!
Back to my calculations. Today, all the tools are available to calculate roughly how much CO2 are emitted by cars, busses, planes, … For this little exercise, I’ve used the following websites:
http://www.carbonbalanced.org/calculator/flights.asp for the flights
https://www.google.co.uk/maps for the distances by bus
Things got a little more complicated when it came to calculate the emissions from our ship. Turns out that the ship burns about 6.5 to 7 tons of fuel per day. CO2 equivalence depends of course on the type of fuel. MGO (Marine Gas Oil) is what our ship uses, and the calculation is quite simple, 1 ton of MGO corresponds to 3.082 tons of CO2. Why do carbon emissions weight more than the original fuel you ask? Well it’s fairly simple. During combustion, each carbon atom in the fuel combines with two oxygen atoms in the air to make CO2 (source: https://www.eia.gov/tools/faqs/faq.cfm?id=82&t=11) .
Here is the final result: The carbon footprint of travelling to Antarctica and spending 52 days on a cruise ship:
So 12.13 tons of carbon dioxide. Is this big or small? Just to give you an idea, the emissions for one full year of an average person in the UK amount to 7.13 tons (Data: world bank). So emitting this in two months is definitely a lot.
What really surprised me is how much the ship emitted over these two months. The ship burnt about 364 tons of MGO, making a total of 1200 tons of CO2. This is equivalent to what an average car would emit in…. 188 years. A recent study from UCL (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/early/2016/11/02/science.aag2345) showed that for every ton of carbon dioxide we emit, 3 square meters of arctic sea ice melt. Glup.
What can we learn from this?
Well it is no surprises that tourism in the polar regions has a significant cost on the environment. And I am “only” talking about CO2 emissions. I do strongly believe in the role that these cruises play in communicating and informing the guests about the impacts in climate change in these fragile environments. We can only hope that once our guests return to their home country, that they would themselves become the ambassadors of these regions, spreading the word on climate change and its impacts to their families and friends.
What is the future of tourism in Antarctica?
No matter how exclusive and remote this region is, the tourism industry is investing massively in the region. A total of 52 cruise ships (registered by IAATO: https://iaato.org/documents/10157/1444539/Tourism+Summary+by+Expedition/ef1ed708-ff6d-40f8-9ef4-bbafd5908112 ) travelled to Antarctica in the summer 2015-2016. A whole new fleet of ships is currently being built especially for gaining access to these challenging and icy places (eg: http://www.travelandleisure.com/cruises/new-cruise-ships)
Some silver lining in this, the norwegian company Hurtigruten will get the first hybrid cruise ships travelling to the polar regions: http://www.cntraveler.com/story/how-rolls-royce-is-helping-hurtigruten-make-eco-friendly-cruise-ships but this is not going to solve the problem of guests travelling to the port of call, and the increasing emissions coming from an increasing number of ships going to these regions.
So what are the solutions?
Before booking a cruise you can actually check which ships are the least polluting (in terms of water and air pollution among other things): http://www.foe.org/cruise-report-card although most of the small cruise ships we met in Antarctica (
In general, cruises are more polluting per kilometre than flying on a large aircrafts. So if you’re looking into sustainable tourism, cruises are probably not the way to go.
What can we improve? Well I believe that putting a price on the carbon emissions is essential. Just like airlines are working hard on reducing carbon emissions, or on including the carbon emissions of their flights in the price of their tickets, cruise operators should follow suit.
Is reducing tourism in the polar regions a solution? Tourism is already regulated in the region by IAATO. Cruise ships with more than 500 passengers for example cannot do landing. But in addition to limiting the number of people who can go on land, limiting at the base the number of ships allowed to travel on the Antarctic Peninsula would be a much stronger, and much more efficient move.
There is a lot we can learn from another fragile place, namely the Galapagos Islands. There, the number of tourists is highly regulated, and tourism helps to fund research. Tourism could help funding research in Antarctica, how cool would that be?!
These are just some ideas, but if we want to combine sustainability and tourism in Antarctica, we have to act now.