The Arctic: where tourism meets conservation
Greenland hit the headlines this week after a vast block of ice broke off from the country's Petermann Glacier. The 600-foot thick iceberg is around four times the size of Manhattan. Researchers monitoring the Greenland ice sheet have said it represents the largest single shedding of Greenland's ice sheet in fifty years.
Breakages from Greenland's ice sheet (a process known as 'calving'), are not uncommon and hundreds occur naturally every year. But the sheer size of the most recent separation from the ice sheet has once again focused attention on changing conditions in the Arctic.
GRID-Arendal in Norway, a collaborating centre of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), closely monitors changes in the Arctic climate and promotes conservation initiatives in the polar region.
Peter Prokosch, Director of GRID-Arendal, says the science world is in agreement that recent years have seen a net loss of ice mass in Greenland.
"Today, we are seeing a much faster rate of iceberg calving than in previous years", explains Mr. Prokosch. But as well as the losses in Greenland, Arctic sea ice, which covers the oceans around the North Pole, is melting at higher speeds every year. This means less ice remaining in late summer and subsequent habitat loss for polar bears and other species. A reduction in ice also means less 'white reflection' of solar energy, which contributes to further warming of the region.
Data from last month shows that the total sea ice cover in the Arctic was at its second-lowest level for July in over three decades. Last month, some 70,000 square kilometers of Arctic ice was lost through melting each day.
So what can be done to protect the Arctic's unique habitats? Those at the UNEP/GRID-Arendal centre believe a new brand of tourism could hold part of the answer.
Svalbard - a picturesque archipelago in the north of Norway - is a case in point. The region is a popular tourist destination and is usually the closest point that visitors can get to the North Pole, which lies 1000 kilometres away.
A joint campaign by conservation groups and tour operators in the 1990s has helped to establish protected areas in Svalbard and new laws that protect biodiversity. Native animal species such as polar bears now have protected status in Svalbard and the hunting of many species has been outlawed.
After witnessing this success on their doorstep, the team from the UNEP/GRID-Arendal centre developed the "Linking Tourism and Conservation" (LT&C) initiative. The project will investigate how sustainable tourism can help support the management and development of protected areas.
Later this month, UNEP/GRID-Arendal will host a study expedition to Svalbard for conservationists, journalists and members of the public. A further tour of Antarctica is planned for November, when participants will learn about the development of marine protected areas in the Southern hemisphere.
"Hardly anywhere else than in the Polar regions is it so easy to convince people to support and invest in protecting our planet", says Mr. Prokosch. "This is because the polar regions are the ideal place to see the link between the impact of climate change and biodiversity. Good examples, like this cold face of climate change, should inspire similar projects in other tourism areas."
UNEP/GRID-Arendal also plans to produce an interactive map of tourist destinations that are participating in conservation work. It is hoped that the map will encourage investment in tourism projects that support conservation and will allow tourists to view a destination's green credentials before finalising their trip.
Tourism represents both the challenges and opportunities for combating climate change and protecting biodiversity. As the UNEP/GRID-Arendal's expeditions set sail for Svalbard later this month, it is hoped that lessons learned in Norway will inspire conservation efforts from the Amazon to the Serengeti - and in many other tourist destinations across the globe.
For more information please on UNEP/GRID-Arendal's Linking Tourism and Conservation project, please visit www.grida.no/ltc