The importance of protecting the unique Antarctic environment has been recognised for a long time. Balancing the demands of scientific research and tourism with the protection of that environment has long been acknowledged as a significant challenge: “Tourism offers both benefits and threats to Antarctic conservation. On the one hand, all who experience its magnificent scenery and wildlife gain a greatly enhanced appreciation of Antarctica’s global importance and of the requirements for its conservation… On the other hand, there is the potential for undesirable impacts such as… the environmental hazards of accidents, which may require time-consuming and costly search-and-rescue and environmental cleanup operations.” 28

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

All activities in Antarctica are carried out under the umbrella of the Antarctic Treaty system. Its stated purpose is to ensure “in the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord.” 29

“The Antarctic Treaty System (ATS) is the whole complex of arrangements made for the purpose of coordinating relations among states with respect to Antarctica.” 30 Included in the system are the Antarctic Treaty and recommendations and protocols drawn up by the Treaty parties and SCAR (the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research). Protection of the Antarctic environment is a primary goal of all stakeholders.

The original signatories to the Treaty were the 12 countries active in Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58.31 Known as the original “consultative parties”, they have, by 2008, been joined by 33 other nations to make a total of 45 nations involved in the administration of Antarctic affairs.32

Meetings of the Consultative Parties were held biennually from 1961 (annually after 1991) to exchange information and formulate policy to further the principles and objectives of the Treaty. Concerns about the effect of tourism on scientific research and the environment began to surface in such meetings as early as 1966.33 It has continued to be a hot topic since.

[As an aside, the perceived impact of tourist activity may be at odds with the reality. In his 1994 article Robert Headland quotes research that found from winter 1992 to summer 1993 (by which time there was a much higher level of tourist activity than in the 1970s), there were 3,270 tourist man days in Antarctica – compared to 629,255 science and logistics man days.34 So, tourist activity on the continent accounted for a mere 0.52% of the total human impact.]

Most relevant to the current discussion were two recommendations made by the Consultative Parties: one in 1964, and the other in 1979 just months before the Erebus accident.

In 1964 the parties resolved to exchange “information on airfield facilities in the Antarctic Treaty Area” including “particulars of location, operating conditions and limitations, radio aids to navigation, facilities for radio communications and instrument landing.” This information was to be “in detail sufficient to enable an aircraft to make a safe landing.” 35

In 1979, specific concern was voiced about commercial Antarctic overflights. The meeting noted that whilst they reaffirmed the “traditional principle in the Antarctic of rendering all assistance feasible in the event of an emergency request for help,” they were at pains to point out that “commercial overflights of Antarctica are operating in a particularly hazardous environment,… where emergencies could arise which are beyond the capacity of permanent Antarctic expeditions to respond adequately.” 36

As a result, the meeting recommended that their governments “notify commercial aircraft operators that the present level of tourist overflight activity:

  • “Exceeds existing capabilities for air traffic control, communications and search and rescue in the Antarctic;
  • May interfere with normal operational flights in support of expeditions engaged in ongoing scientific programs in the Antarctic;
  • Exceeds the capacity of their Antarctic operations to respond adequately to an unplanned emergency landing.” 37

The parties had reasonable grounds for concern. As well as large-scale, well-resourced aviation activities, private pilots began to take significant risks. In January 1970, American Max Conrad, flew a Piper Aztec (a four-seat, naturally aspirated, twin-piston-engined aircraft) from Invercargill to McMurdo Sound and then on to the South Pole. He crashed attempting to take off again, and the remains of his aircraft were never removed.

In the same month, two Norwegians flew another light twin to Williams Field then the South Pole to McMurdo, and on to Punta Arenas.38