Recent findings suggest that the decline in the number of chinstrap penguins is due to climate change, not tourists. ©Colin McNulty

As an ecotourist, you know that your travels can do a lot of good in the world. They can help boost the economies of local communities, fund preserves and deter poaching. You also know that your presence can sometimes be a detriment to the very lands and wildlife you wish to protect. It’s a fine line you walk, and a balance you keep in mind as a responsible world traveler.

So when good news comes out about the effects of our wanderings, we can’t help but be excited. Such a report was issued from the National Science Foundation last week. It turns out that climate change—not tourism as previously suspected—is driving the decline in Antarctica’s chinstrap penguin populations.

It’s the climate, not the company

On November 6, 2012, the National Science Foundation reported that as temperatures have rapidly warmed on the Antarctic Peninsula, the breeding population of chinstrap penguins has declined significantly. The findings were based on data collected in December 2011 on Deception Island, one of the busiest stops on Antarctica cruises.

Antarctic researchers work in harsh conditions: persistent clouds, precipitation and high winds—which sometimes reach gale force. ©Colin McNulty

Using the yacht Pelagic as a base of operations, researchers spent 12 days at Deception Island in harsh conditions: persistent clouds, precipitation and high winds that sometimes reached gale force. What they discovered was that two of the three predominant penguin species on the peninsula—chinstrap and Adelie—are declining significantly in a region where, in the last 60 years, it’s warmed 5 degrees Fahrenheit annually and 9 degrees Fahrenheit in winter.

The research team found 79,849 breeding pairs of chinstrap penguins at Deception, including 50,408 breeding pairs at Baily Head on the west side of the island. Using a simulation designed to take into account uncertainty in an earlier population estimate, there was strong evidence to suggest a significant decline—greater than 50 percent—in the abundance of chinstraps breeding at Baily Head since 1986–87. And analyses of high-resolution satellite imagery for the 2002–03 and the 2009–10 seasons suggested a 39 percent decline during that seven-year period, providing independent confirmation of the population fall.

While it had been speculated that tourism was causing the negative impact on breeding chinstrap penguins, their diminished population at Baily Head is consistent with declines in this species throughout the region, including at sites that receive little or no tourism. In conclusion, then, if tourism is having a negative impact on these populations, it’s too small an effect to be detected against the background of climate change.

Should tourist numbers to Antarctica be limited in view of these new study results? ©Colin McNulty

In contrast, gentoo penguins are expanding both in numbers and in range. While the divergent responses for the two species of penguins are an ongoing focus of the research, the initial results are positive news for the ecotourism industry, as they indicate that global warming, rather than the numbers of human visitors, has had the greatest effect on the chinstrap population.

Is there a need to restrict visitors?

In 2009, safety fears and concerns about the impact travelers were having on the delicate frozen landscape caused signatories of the Antarctic Treaty, an agreement between 48 nations on the use of the continent, to set limits for the number of tourists permitted—although there are no legally binding rules for tourists in Antarctica. In 1992-93, visitors to Antarctica numbered 6,700. By 2009-10, they had risen to more than 40,000. The new rules asked that countries prevent ships with more than 500 passengers from landing on the continent and to only allow a maximum of 100 passengers on shore at any given time.

The economic downturn, however, has drastically reduced the number of visitors to Antarctica  in the past two years: the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) states that the total number of tourists to Antarctica during the 2010–11 season was 33,824; and in the 2011–2012 season, it was just 26,519. However, IAATO projects that the number of visitors traveling to Antarctica in 2012–2013 will rise to 34,950.

In light of these new findings regarding penguin populations—yet in the face of rising numbers of visitors forecast for next season—do you think it’s necessary to restrict the number of tourists to Antarctica?

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,

Candy