A planned driving trip to Antarctica's South Pole along the ice road built by the United States has sparked concern about growing commercialization of the frozen continent, where visitor numbers could hit 50,000 this year.
A group describing itself as "San Francisco Bay area professionals who use long range driving expeditions to promote cross-border understanding and goodwill," has announced a "Zero South" drive from the Antarctic coast to the pole in the coming Southern Hemisphere summer.
The ice road to the South Pole was built by U.S. contractors between 2001-2004 to enable the National Science Foundation to supply its science base at the pole using crawler tractors and sleds, cutting back cargo airplane flights.
The group's Web site — — noted the trip would be "a 10-day, 1,000 mile journey to the South Pole by alternative fuel vehicles (winter 2008)."
McMurdo to pole
An adjacent map of the Antarctic shows the U.S. base McMurdo Station on the coast connected by a blue line depicting the ice road across the Ross Ice Shelf and Antarctic plateau to Amundsen-Scott South Pole Base.
In an illustration labeled "Zero South" on the site, two men struggle to free a crawler tractor stuck in heavy snow conditions.
Calling themselves as a group of volunteers, the group said collectively they have visited more than 100 countries over the past 20 years, doing volunteer work as part of a travel program. It was unclear what work they would during their journey to the South Pole.
Alan Hemmings, senior fellow in Antarctic studies at Canterbury University, immediately raised concerns over the plan and the increasing commercialization of the continent.
"If the Americans put in a route to the South Pole, an incredible enterprise, other people think that's ... a more safe route I want to use to go to the South Pole," he told National Radio.
'Much wider problem'
"This individual junket involving chaps driving down the South Pole (road), if that was all that was going on, one could be sanguine about it," he said. "But that's not all that's going on."
Hemmings said the group's planned drive to the pole was "part of a much wider problem that we have regulating tourism to Antarctica."
Visitors could reach 50,000 tourists and support crew in the next Southern Hemisphere summer — up from about 2,500 in 1990, he said.
"You have a vast number of activities in Antarctica now ... tourism has grown at an extraordinary rate," he said.
Antarctic tourism was almost out of control and was already "by far the largest" human activity on the frozen southern continent.
"The concern ... has to be that ... we are at the break point for mass tourism to Antarctica," he warned, with the prospect looming of mass transport by ships and aircraft to hotels yet to be established.
The group did not immediately respond to queries about their plans to drive to the South Pole.