This week, a massive, luxury cruise liner departed from Anchorage, Alaska, on the first leg of a 32-day cruise through the Northwest Passage.
The Crystal Serenity is carrying 1,070 passengers and 670 crew members. It has boutique shopping, a casino, a theater, and several bars on board. Its nine passenger decks tower over a hundred feet above the ocean surface. From these decks, passengers will see views that for centuries have been largely the provenance of intrepid explorers and a scant population of native people, clustered in hamlets that can be separated by hundreds of miles of Arctic tundra and icy waters.
In recent years, though, more and more tourists have begun popping up along the Northwest Passage. Some organizers use a dash-in, dash-out approach, departing and returning from Greenland. Others rely on expedition-style ice breakers, a specialized type of ship that, as the name suggests, breaks up ice as it travels. But the Crystal Serenity will be the first large-scale cruise liner ever to traverse the Northwest Passage — going from Anchorage, through the Bering Strait, along the northern coast of Canada, past Greenland, down the Eastern Seaboard to New York City. Temperatures will be in the 50s on good days. At night, it will be below freezing.
The trip is possible only because the Arctic’s ice is receding, and it is a powerful reminder of how far we have come in a century and a half of industrialization.
This is the same region where the HMS Resolute was locked in ice in August 1850. Where a British expedition was lost in September 1840 near King William Island, in Nunavut, Canada, a northern province made up mostly of maritime islands. The Crystal Serenity will pass mere miles from King William Island, stopping on the other side of the Victoria Strait at Cambridge Bay, one of the largest hamlets in the province.
This voyage is the beginning of a new era. But locals and environmentalists worry that is the end of one, as well.
A People’s History
“Our ancestral history talks about a time before the Bering land bridge,” said Austin Ahmasuk, a marine advocate for Kawerak, which represents indigenous groups in Alaska.
Ahmasuk, a lifelong hunter and fisherman who was born and raised in Nome, Alaska, told ThinkProgress that his people’s way of life is at risk. The communities of northern Alaska and along the Northwest Passage (indeed, throughout the coastal Arctic) are subsistence communities. Nearly all their food comes from the sea, whether it is fish, sea mammals, seabirds, or shellfish. His is a culture of tradition and heritage.
“All of this change has the possibility to impact that,” he said.
The Arctic is especially fragile.
More than 15 years ago, scientists found that the ecosystem around the Aleutian Islands (which stretch into the Bering Sea from the southwest corner of Alaska) had completely shifted. A small rise in water temperatures had triggered the collapse of plankton and krill populations, resulting in a domino effect up the food chain, until the seals, and then the otters, were gone. The sea urchin population exploded, destroying the kelp beds, which, in turn, had housed food for seabirds and other animals.
“All of this change has the possibility to impact food security.”
This kind of domino effect wreaks havoc on local subsistence communities.
In addition, rising sea levels and ice loss are threatening communities across the Arctic coast. It is on the front lines of climate change. But the voyage of the Crystal Serenity is both a harbinger and conduit of other threats. For Arctic communities, environmental risks from water pollution and wildlife disruption are as threatening as climate change.
As traffic in the Arctic increases, regulators and local communities are struggling to find a balance between access and safety. The answer is not always a good one. For instance, a recent study by the U.S. Coast Guard would allow oil tankers to pass dangerously close to King Island, Ahmasuk said. King Island is hunting grounds for a native population in and around Nome, and it is a “globally important” region of marine life.
“A massive oil spill where our communities rely upon the environment to provide food — food security — is of critical importance,” Ahmasuk said. “All of this change has the possibility to impact food security.”
Not all communities are displeased with the increased activity, though. It is a hardscrabble life in the far north, and passengers on a cruise ship spend money.
“They really have done everything right. People are prepared for the big ship.”
Vicki Aitaok, owner of Qaigguit Tours in Cambridge Bay, said she is hiring 50 people for the one day Crystal Serenity will bring its passengers to town.
Crystal Serenity’s arrival will be an event. Cambridge Bay is one of Nunavut’s largest hamlets, but its population will double when the Crystal Serenity comes to town. There is no dock big enough for the cruise ship in the area. Instead, passengers will be ferried on smaller boats to a dock six miles out of town. Aitaok hopes to move 100 people every half hour, using almost every available transport.
“It’s an opportunity,” Aitaok said. “Everybody benefits. The crafters, the museums, the cultural performers.”
There will be a one-day festival, showcasing local crafts, performances, and traditions.
“They really have done everything right. People are prepared for the big ship,” Aitaok said.
Crystal Serenity and the Environment
The operators of the Crystal Serenity have gone out of their way to assure communities (and passengers) that everything will go well.
They are using low-emission fuel. They are not dumping untreated sewage, even 12 miles offshore (where it is, amazingly, legal to do so). They are not dumping untreated greywater. They have upgraded to a high-efficiency garbage incinerator.
“Crystal Cruises has been working on this project since 2013 and will be implementing a number of additional precautions to ensure the safety of all guests and crew, as well as to protect the pristine environment,” company spokesperson Paul Garcia told ThinkProgress in an email.
But what if the environment does something to them?
“Rescue in the Arctic is challenging in the best of circumstances.”
The ship will still be carrying 1,700 people, fuel for 32 days, additional ship-to-shore boats, helicopters, and a large hotel’s worth of provisions and amenities. If the ship does run into trouble, it would be a human as well as an ecological tragedy. The company is aware.
“We have taken many extraordinary operational and equipment-related measures to ensure a safe voyage,” Garcia said. “The typical conditions along the planned route during the Arctic summer are substantially free of ice and within Crystal Serenity’s safe operating parameters.”
Passengers were still required to take out a $50,000 evacuation insurance policy.
The Arctic waters are the least-charted waters in the world, heightening the risk of an accident. In 1996, a small cruise ship ran aground near Cambridge Bay. Rescue of the 268 passengers was delayed due to bad weather. And as with anywhere, storms are possible. Last year, there were more than a dozen full-fledged hurricanes between June and December, and experts predict that there will be an increase in Arctic cyclones in coming years.
The Arctic, needless to say, is a terrible place to weather a storm. Air temperatures during the next month in Nunavut, for instance, are at about freezing. Much of the voyage will take place hundreds of miles from any sort of settlement, much less within reach of emergency rescuers.
“Rescue in the Arctic is challenging in the best of circumstances,” Alana Miller, a spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard, told ThinkProgress in an email. “We’re as prepared as we can be for any situation that may arise.”
Once the Crystal Serenity leaves U.S. waters, Canadian officials will be the lead agency, but the U.S. Coast Guard will be on hand.
“The Arctic is not a location where a country cannot operate in an isolated bubble,” Miller said.
Observers acknowledge that the company is working to ensure the trip goes smoothly, both for passengers and for people onshore. According to several sources, the company has worked extensively and over a period of years with the U.S. Coast Guard, Canadian authorities, and locals at the ports of call.
“Crystal Serenity is trying to be on its best behavior for this voyage,” said Kevin Harun, Arctic program director at Pacific Environment.
Where Regulation Is A Good Thing
But nearly everyone ThinkProgress spoke to emphasized the need for additional marine regulation in the Arctic.
Over the past two years, the International Marine Organization (IMO), part of the United Nations, has adopted the Polar Code, a set of regulations governing ships in Arctic waters. The code prohibits the discharge of oily water and garbage and sets certain safety standards.
But it is missing some major elements, said Harun, whose group has consultative status with the IMO. For starters, it is still legal to discharge blackwater (sewage) 12 miles off shore. But, more importantly, the IMO did not adopt any regulations over black carbon or heavy fuel oils (HFOs), considered the greatest risk to the Arctic’s survival.
“Unfortunately, there are some big holes in the Polar Code,” Harun said.
HFO is a heavy, sticky, dense type of oil. It sinks. It is also cheaper than diesel fuel and is commonly used in cargo vessels. An HFO spill in the Arctic would be devastating. The Arctic Council, a coalition of the countries and peoples bordering the Arctic, has said that an HFO spill is the single greatest threat to the Arctic marine environment.
A cargo ship burns up to 100 tons of HFO each day and can be at sea for over a month.
Harun breaks the danger down into acute pollution and chronic pollution. Acute pollution would be an oil spill. Chronic pollution is the unrelenting emission of trash, sewage, oil, black carbon, and bilge water.
“Personally, I believe there should be zero discharge in the Arctic. They should bring their waste back, and if they can’t do that, they shouldn’t be there,” Harun said.
These issues become more intense as traffic increases.
Black carbon is, in some ways, a strange sort of pollutant. It breaks down quickly (as opposed to carbon diox1ide, for instance), but it has a uniquely powerful impact on the Arctic’s ice, making it both a local hazard and a driver in sea-level rise worldwide. The science is almost laughably simple: Black carbon — which, unsurprisingly, is emitted through the burning of dirty fuels — is black. It floats through the air and lands on ice. The black particles heat up in the sun. The ice melts with the warmth. The melted ice exposes the ocean (at sea) or darker ground (on land) below, which heat up in the sun. More ice melts.
“It’s kind of a vicious cycle,” said the International Council on Clean Transportation’s Bryan Comer. “Over time you end up getting less and less sea ice.”
Less and less sea ice, in turn, means more traffic can pass through, over a longer travel season. Already, there has been a surge in ships in the Arctic. From 2008 to 2012, ship traffic through the Bering Strait increased 117 percent, and it is expected to increase even more in the coming years. This is putting pressure on regulators to come up with good solutions.
“We’ve got to get our act together with environmental safety and rules before there is additional traffic,” Harun said.
Some of the communities working with Kawerak have said they want to ban shipping in the Arctic altogether. It’s too risky, they say.
But even Aitaok, who is set to welcome the Crystal Serenity to Cambridge Bay, applauded efforts from the Nunavut provincial government to add additional maritime regulations. Aitaok, though, says the problem isn’t with the big cruise ships. It’s the smaller boats that are an issue.
“All of the cruise ships that come up here have to go through that review process, and they have to be highly regulated,” Aitaok said. “They aren’t just allowed to come up here and do whatever they want, and that’s what some of the yacht traffic thinks they can do.”
It’s just yet another part of the Arctic’s changing marine activity.
‘All the Change’
What might be most concerning about the Crystal Serenity cruise is not actually the cruise. It is the idea that the Northwest Passage is opening up to all kinds of ship traffic — exposing the entire Arctic to mankind’s characteristic destruction. Yachts, cargo ships, cruises: They are all problematic in a fragile environment.
“The Crystal Serenity voyage is kind of a sign of things to come,” Comer said.
And while the Northwest Passage opens under the watchful eye of the United States and Canada, what is happening across the Bering Strait is, to Alaskans at least, largely unknown.
It takes a week less time to send a cargo ship from China to Europe if it goes through the Arctic north of Russia. Given that Europe is huge consumer of East Asian goods, there is significant incentive to take the northern route.
There are more ships, we know that. Some of these ships may be carrying oil. Some are undoubtedly running on dirty fuels.
From his vantage point in Nome, Kawerak’s Ahmasuk wonders what all that traffic means. “What are the Russians up to?” he asked. “Do the Russians have the same concerns we do about HFO? Do they have the same concerns about noise pollution?”
An Ironic Excursion
Meanwhile, passengers aboard the Crystal Serenity are getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Among the activities offered during the cruise is a 250-mile roundtrip helicopter flight to Shishmaref, Alaska.
Shishmaref, a coastal village of about 560 people, is dying. On Tuesday, villagers voted in favor of abandoning their town, which is slowly receding into the ocean. Or, to be more accurate, slowly succumbing to the rising waters of the Arctic. Its permafrost is melting. Its food security has been compromised.
The vote was more of a referendum than a plan. It will cost much more than these people have to relocate. But it may cost them everything to stay.
Crystal Serenity passengers, who paid upwards of $40,000 for the cruise, and will pay an addition $600 for the day trip, will fly from the ship to Shishmaref for a “Study in Global Warming.”
When Kawerak’s Ahmasuk heard about the trip, he was pensive.
“They will be able to visually see,” he said, talking about Shishmaref’s eroding permafrost-laden coastline. “So I guess that would be valuable.”
Speculating that the trip will likely be very short, as passengers will have to fly in and fly out, Ahmasuk said.
“It’s all related to context. Are they going to have enough time to interact with people and with the local community and understand how much things are changing?”