The remote continent is becoming increasingly accessible—during the 2019-20 season, the number of sightseeing visitors reached 74,000, with the vast majority travelling by ship.
All activity in Antarctica—be it powered drills for scientific ice coring or vehicles for transport—burns fuel. As we burn fuel to keep warm, or to move around, our activities release microscopic particles of “black carbon” (smoke and soot).
All samples from near human settlements showed black carbon levels greatly above the typical Antarctic background levels, a clear sign of human emissions. Elevated levels of black carbon will influence how snow absorbs light, a property known as “albedo”. Snow with a lower albedo will melt faster. As a result, the black carbon content in the collected snow samples could be used to infer whether snow melt rates might have increased due to human activity.
When examining tourist activities specifically, the [study] authors calculate that each visitor between 2016 and 2020 was effectively melting around 83 metric tons of snow, due largely to emissions from cruise ships.
Scientific activities are not exempt—in fact, scientific research stations contribute to an order of magnitude higher per capita snow melt rate through the operation of fuel-intensive equipment and vehicles, sometimes year-round.
As human activity in Antarctica increases, so will the accompanying effects.