Arctic cruises are risky business: expert

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The cruise ship Crystal Serenity is shown in a handout photo. The Crystal Serenity, the biggest cruise ship to plan a transit of the legendary Northwest Passage, is so large that Canadian officials are holding special meetings this week to prepare. Residents in the communities along its route, who will be outnumbered by the ship's passengers and crew, are already planning for a visit that won't happen until August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
The cruise ship Crystal Serenity is shown in a handout photo. The Crystal Serenity, the biggest cruise ship to plan a transit of the legendary Northwest Passage, is so large that Canadian officials are holding special meetings this week to prepare. Residents in the communities along its route, who will be outnumbered by the ship’s passengers and crew, are already planning for a visit that won’t happen until August. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO
Climate change means melting ice will make it possible for cruise ships to go through the Northwest Passage in a few months, but Michael Byers says such voyages carry risks and are bad for the environment.

Byers is Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia and author of “International law and the Arctic.”

Search and rescue two days away

An accident is the most obvious hazard, says Byers, noting that the area is so remote that it would take a search-and-rescue helicopter up to two days to get there. And, for example, it could do little for the 1,070 passengers and 600 crew expected to sail this summer on the Crystal Serenity, the first cruise ship to sail the passage.

“There are many other risks,” he says. “These are shallow, poorly-charted waters. There are remnants of icebergs, small pieces of glacial ice that, if struck by a ship, can punch a hole in the hull.”

Icing can capsize a ship

Icing occurs when temperatures are below freezing. Spray can rise up from the sea and freeze on a ship, causing it to become unstable and even capsize.

While cruise ships have less fuel than do oil tankers, any spill would be difficult to clean, given that there is little equipment, few people and few government ships in the Arctic. A spill in August or September would leave little time before total darkness falls upon the Arctic for many months. All this, says Byers, makes a clean-up “almost inconceivable.”

Cruises contribute to climate change

It may be good for people to see the effects of climate change up close, he adds, but the cruises themselves contribute to climate change. Fossil fuels are burned by the ship’s propulsion and heating system, by the planes that fly people to and from the port, and by the transportation needed to import all the food.

Perhaps a different vacation, suggests author

Byers says he would not tell people to not go on an Arctic cruise. He has sailed there on a Canadian Coast Guard ice breaker and on a smaller, eco-cruise ship. But he does suggest people consider several factors and then maybe decide on a trip closer to home.

“Consider the fact that you would be contributing to climate change by going (on an Arctic cruise), and think about whether there’s an element of tension in the desire to see climate change while making it worse.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada:  Ice, shipping and the Northwest Passage, Radio Canada International

China: Chinese company mulls more Arctic shipping, Barents Observer

Iceland: Calls for action at Arctic shipping conference, Alaska Dispatch News

Russia:  Arctic cruise industry expands, Cryopolitics Blog

Sweden: Swedish icebreakers gear up for Arctic role, Radio Sweden

United States:  Arctic no shipping rival to Suez: expert, Alaska Public Radio Network

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Lynn Desjardins, Radio Canada International

Lynn Desjardins, Radio Canada International

For more news from around the world visit Radio Canada International.

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