Monday, January 17, 2011

Anniversary of historic South Pole expeditions will create a spike in tourism

Scott's 1912 polar expedition. Assoc. Press
It’s come to this: the deadliest wilderness on the planet may assume a “circus atmosphere” next December. According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, plans are already well underway to mark the 100th anniversary of the first explorers’ setting foot at the South Pole on Dec. 14, 1911. Such an anniversary could reasonably be expected to inspire commemorations by Norway and Great Britain in honor of the achievements of their countrymen, Amundsen and Scott respectively. Their parties reached the pole within weeks of each other. However, staffers of the National Science Foundation’s Amundsen-Scott research station at the South Pole are bracing for an unprecedented onslaught of unofficial guests.

The traditional definition of wilderness as undomesticated and uninhabited land is laced with denotations of unrestrained barbarism and violence. Historically, wilderness was to be feared with good reason. Adventurers exploring undisturbed wilderness understood that their lives were at risk. And among the most famous of those who undertook that risk was the Scott party who reached the South Pole second, on Jan. 17, 1912. None survived the return trip.

But a hundred years after that historic tragedy the same wilderness has become the latest playground for those who seek a wilderness thrill. The fact that we have changed the world’s landscape nearly everywhere to domesticated and inhabited – therefore safe – is an important determinant of this situation. However, the difference is that today’s adventurers are not explorers but tourists. The plans vary. Some expect to follow Amundsen and Scott’s routes on skis, but many more will travel to the pole in relative comfort. For $40,000 you too can fly directly there. For an additional $17,000 you can be dropped off a few miles from the pole “so they can ski the remaining stretch and feel the thrill of victory.”

They want that thrill without the threat of death. While I can relate to that – the urban wilderness premise is based on it – I firmly believe that there are some places that ought to remain untamed. We should never confuse the urban wilderness with any of the few truly wild, dangerous places left. The National Science Foundation agrees that Antarctica is one of those places. The Times article quotes Robert Swan, an environmentalist: “It’s a place that wants you dead.”

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