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Could Arctic Cruises Spell Disaster for the Northwest Passage?

Experts warn against sailing through the icy, Arctic waters before better regulations are put in place.

By Kate Wheeling


The ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror used in Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest Passage.(Photo: Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

For hundreds of years, the Northwest Passage was the stuff of legend: an imaginary route through the landscape of Arctic ice separating the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In the early 20th century, Roald Amundsen and his crew spent three years undertaking the first successful transit of the region. Since then, some 200 ships have made the journey, most in the last decade. Part of the reason for this uptick in travel: Melting Arctic ice left the Passage more navigable during the warm summer months. But is all that sailing necessarily a good thing?

The evolution of navigation along the route came to a climax earlier this year, when a commercial cruise ship operated by Crystal Cruises LLC sailed through the Passage in just one month. While its Crystal Serenity — a 13-decker the length of nearly three football fields, carrying roughly 1,700 passengers from Seward, Alaska, to New York — was not the first cruise ship to make the voyage into the Northwest Passage, it was certainly the largest.

But this increase in ship traffic within the Northwest Passage has shipping experts worried, Sky News reports. Experts warn that just because cruise ships can sail through the icy, Arctic waters, doesn’t mean they should — at least not before better regulations are put in place to keep accidents from becoming disasters.

Ships aren’t just passively passing through a changing Arctic; they are directly contributing to its metamorphosis.

Sailing through icy water is dicey business, and there’s always a risk that something will go wrong in the Northwest Passage’s vast expanse of frigid water where search and rescue operations are unseasoned.

But it’s not just the passengers that experts are worried about. “Potentially, an accident involving a mega-ship could represent an environmental disaster,” Daniel Skjeldam, CEO of Hurtigruten Cruises, told Sky News. And while the heavy fuel oil that powers most cruise ships is banned in the Antarctic, it’s only discouraged in the Arctic.

Accidents are already becoming more frequent in Arctic waters, according to the Wall Street Journal, and even absent an outright disaster, ships can still leave an impact on the region’s wildlife. As Eva Hollandreported in May, the increase in shipping, and the anthropogenic noise that accompanies the rise in traffic, appears to be displacing narwhals, the unicorn-horned whales that many locals rely on for food.

While these concerns could apply to any type of ship now traversing the Northwest Passage — from cargo ships carrying coal to small, privately owned, recreational boats — passenger vessels like the Crystal Serenity can also have a large effect on communities when they call into port. Many of the communities on the islands within the Northwest Passage have fewer members than the Crystal Serenity has passengers. When those passengers come ashore, it can be a mixed bag for the hamlets that have adapted to a life of seclusion, Madeleine Redfern, the mayor of Iqaluit in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, told Holland for a story in Pacific Standard:

The number of community members who are involved in cruise ship tourism is quite small. So it’s not seen as a particularly large beneficial impact for the community as a whole. What tends to happen is you have a few people who prepare items for sale, women or carvers, you have some throat singers, some drum dancers, some storytellers — so if you actually looked at the number of people who are involved in cruise ship tourism, whether in Cape Dorset, Pond Inlet, Pangnirtung, even in Iqaluit, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re looking at probably less than 20 people [in each]. And when a cruise ship unloads its passengers it can be quite a throng of people who descend on the community. It can feel like all of a sudden people are gawking at you.

Ships aren’t just passively passing through a changing Arctic; they are directly contributing to its metamorphosis. As long as rising temperatures and melting ice keep the Passage open, it seems inevitable that tourists will invade its waters.

Tickets to sail aboard the Crystal Serenity sold out in just three weeks (despite the roughly $22,000 fare); the company has already planned a second cruise along the route for next year.