Arrivals at the bottom of the world quadrupled from 40 in the 2003-04 season to 164 last year, statistics from the United States base at the pole say.
“They come and they come,” US National Science Foundation representative Jerry Marty told The Antarctic Sun.
The US Antarctic Program was trying to work out how to manage the influx, he said. “It’s one of those unknowns we hadn’t expected.”
Alan Hemmings, an Australian environmentalist, said the road “is the greatest single footprint of activity we’ve seen in the Antarctic” and has “the potential for far-reaching impacts.”
Apart from the 13,000 tourists who visited Antarctica by sea last year, Antarctica’s scientific community has to cope with ever more adventurous visitors.
In December they signaled their frustration by refusing to refuel the homemade plane of a stranded Australian aviator, accusing him of failing to prepare properly for his polar flight. He finally got fuel from another aviator whose expedition was aborted by bad weather.
Hemmings said tour operators “might want to piggyback on this U.S. route — and the U.S. will be able to do little about that.”
Hemmings is senior adviser to the Australian-based Antarctic and Southern Oceans Coalition, an environmental advocacy group.
Commercial operators already take tourists across the frozen landmass to the South Pole by plane. The more robust adventure tourist can get about on skis.
“The route may attract other activity … facilitate greater access,” Hemmings said. “We are beginning to change Antarctica.”