Tough new restrictions on the number of people visiting Antarctica are to be implemented as the volume of visitors to the White Continent continues to soar.
Cruise ships carrying more than 500 passengers will be prohibited from landing anyone. Only 100 visitors are to be allowed on shore at any given time, in an attempt to prevent damage to the region’s unique ecosystem.
The limits, agreed by the 28 countries that have signed the Antarctic treaty, including the UK, are to be imposed as figures show that visitor numbers have risen from 6,700 in 1992 to more than 45,000.
Such rapid growth has alarmed environmentalists keen to protect a region severely threatened by global warming that is home to several varieties of penguins and seals and is a vital feeding ground for whales.
Scientists fear that visitors could unwittingly introduce invasive species, such as rats, insects and plants, with the potential to devastate the delicate frozen landscape.
The measures are also designed to prevent Titanic-style disasters with huge loss of life. Many of the vessels in the area are not equipped to cope with the harsh conditions and the dangers of icebergs, an increasing risk as climate change precipitates the breaking up of ice. There are concerns over the difficulties of evacuating liners carrying between 2,000 and 3,000 passengers.
In 2007 more than 150 passengers and crew on the cruise ship Explorer were rescued from lifeboats in freezing water after the vessel was holed by an iceberg and sank, leaking oil into the ocean.
Last month more than 100 people trapped on a cruise ship, including 17 Britons, had to be evacuated after it ran aground near an Argentinian naval base. Experts have documented six incidents in just over a year that risked major contamination.
Earlier this month a 40km ice bridge linking a shelf of ice the size of Jamaica to two islands in Antarctica collapsed. The bridge is thought to have been integral to the structure of the 13,000 sq km Wilkins Ice Shelf that scientists predict may now disintegrate into thousands of icebergs.
The new restrictions were agreed at the 32nd Antarctic treaty consultative meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, at the end of fortnight-long talks.