Pristine Continent, Messy Problem

john blackstone, journey to the bottom of the earth, garbage, antarctica, trash
This is the thirt part of a series on the effects of global warming in Antarctica.

Antarctica is a land of towering mountains and vast emptiness - a pristine continent with a big garbage problem.

CBS News correspondent John Blackstone asked Mark Furnish, who is in charge of picking up at McMurdo Station, America's main Antarctic science base: "You're the garbage man of Antarctica?"

"Yeah, I'm the biggest trash man on the continent," Furnish said.

His challenge: None of the trash produced in Antarctica can be left there because it would be there forever.

"If you go down to Scott's Hut, down there on the point, you'll see ... still see seal carcasses that haven't decomposed yet," he said. "[They've] been there for a century."

One of the beauties of Antarctica, and one of its problems, is that nothing goes away.

This is the hut explorer Robert Scott built in 1901. It's completely unchanged since then.

Inside the hut, it's an amazing scene of the past preserved. Everything remains as it was more than a century ago. In Antarctica, it's so cold and dry, nothing decays. It just freezes.

Leftovers are now historial artifacts.

What the early explorers left behind, from dog biscuits to oatmeal, is considered historical artifacts.

But now the scientists and support workers can't leave anything behind.

"The point is that when we have 1,200 people at the height of summer, all those little impacts add up to a big impact," said Kevin Pettway, an environmental consultant.

Think sorting your recycling is complex? These people are forced to separate into 14 different bins.

Then it all gets packed up to be shipped 10,000 miles to California. Even food scraps.

"The burn-ables are gonna get burned," Furnish said. "They're gonna get incinerated."

In Antarctica?

"No, in California," he said. "You cannot incinerate anything in Antarctica. Nothing here."

But the scientists aren't the only ones here. For adventurers, skiing some 800 miles to the South Pole has become a popular challenge. More than 100 have made the trek in just the last four months.

And with global warming threatening both the penguins and the ice at the bottom of the world, thousands of tourists seem determined to see this special place while its still here.

They are coming to Antarctica by the boatload. The number of tourists has nearly quadrupled in the past decade ... to 37,000 last year. That worries environmental groups keeping an eye on Antarctica.

"Antarctica should be protected as a wilderness; perhaps the last great wilderness on the planet," said David Bederman of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. "It should not be turned into a kind of eco-tourism Disneyland."

While Bederman gives America's science program high marks for environmental sensitivity, one big project is raising concern: a plan to build a nearly 1,000-mile ice road so supplies could be dragged to the South Pole science station instead of flown in.

"As much as we support Antarctica being used for science, I'm not sure essentially the equivalent of an interstate highway from McMurdo Station on the coast to the South Pole station at the Pole makes terribly much sense," Bederman said.

On a continent where every footstep, every piece of litter, can last forever, global warming is not the only threat.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.