Un­charted waters: Mega-cruise ships sail the Arc­tic

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

A surge in Arc­tic tourism is bring­ing ever big­ger cruise ships to the for­merly iso­lated, ice-bound re­gion, prompt­ing calls for a clam­p­down to pre­vent Ti­tanic-style ac­ci­dents and the pol­lu­tion of frag­ile eco-sys­tems. Arc­tic na­tions should con­sider lim­it­ing the size of ves­sels and ban the use of heavy fuel oil in the re­gion, in­dus­try play­ers said, after a first lux­ury cruise ship sailed safely through Canada’s North­west Pas­sage this sum­mer. The route, which con­nects the At­lantic and Pa­cific Oceans via the Arc­tic, was once clogged with ice­bergs but is now ice-free in sum­mer due to global warm­ing.

With a min­i­mum ticket price of $19,755, the 1,700 pas­sen­gers and crew on board the Crys­tal Seren­ity fol­lowed in re­verse - the route first nav­i­gated more than a cen­tury ago by Nor­we­gian ex­plorer Roald Amund­sen. They left An­chor­age in Alaska on Aug. 15 and docked in New York on Sep. 16. The ship’s op­er­a­tor, Crys­tal Cruises, says on its web­site it will re­peat the voy­age in 2017. It de­clined a re­quest for com­ment when con­tacted by Reuters. Two ship­ping ex­ec­u­tives ex­pressed con­cern that the one-off trip could be­come a trend, cit­ing wor­ries over safety, risks to the en­vi­ron­ment and the im­pact on small com­mu­ni­ties, in an area where there is no port be­tween An­chor­age and Nuuk, in Green­land.

“The North­west Pas­sage is thou­sands and thou­sands of nau­ti­cal miles with ab­so­lutely noth­ing ... There is a need to dis­cuss pos­si­ble reg­u­la­tion,” said Tero Vauraste, the CEO of Arc­tia, a Fin­nish ship­ping firm spe­cial­iz­ing in ice­break­ers. Were a ship to be in trou­ble in the North­west Pas­sage, there would be lit­tle au­thor­i­ties could do given the lack of in­fra­struc­ture, he said. “So we must do ev­ery­thing we can do to pre­vent this,” said Vauraste, who is also vice-chair of the Arc­tic Eco­nomic Coun­cil, a re­gional fo­rum for busi­ness co­op­er­a­tion be­tween Arc­tic na­tions. Nav­i­ga­tion in icy waters is made more dif­fi­cult by poor satel­lite im­agery. “An ice field might move at a speed of 4-5 knots, but a ship will re­ceive a satel­lite pic­ture of it that is 10-20 hours old,” said Vauraste. “We need bet­ter qual­ity im­agery.”

An­other con­cern is en­vi­ron­men­tal. “Po­ten­tially, an ac­ci­dent in­volv­ing a mega-ship could rep­re­sent an en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter,” said Daniel Sk­jel­dam, CEO of Hur­tigruten, a cruise ship op­er­a­tor in the Arc­tic and the Antarc­tic, whose big­gest ships can ac­com­mo­date 646 pas­sen­gers. Cruise ships usu­ally use heavy oil, a type of fuel that takes longer to break down in the event of a spill. The Crys­tal Seren­ity did not use heavy oil dur­ing its trip, its op­er­a­tor has said. “Heavy oil in cold con­di­tions is sticky and takes much longer time to break down so it has a pro­longed ef­fect on the en­vi­ron­ment,” said Marco Lam­ber­tini, di­rec­tor-gen­eral of World Wildlife Fund In­ter­na­tional. “If some­thing hap­pens at the be­gin­ning of win­ter, no cleanup can be done. Oil can get trapped un­der the ice and travel for a hun­dred kilo­me­ters,” he told Reuters. A UN po­lar code will come into ef­fect in 2017 which tough­ens de­mands on ship safety and pol­lu­tion. It bans heavy fuel oil in the Antarc­tic, for in­stance, but merely en­cour­ages ships not to use it in the Arc­tic.

“What I call for is stronger reg­u­la­tions co­or­di­nated be­tween the Arc­tic na­tions,” Hur­tigruten’s Sk­jel­dam told Reuters. He sug­gested the size of ships should be lim­ited, without spec­i­fy­ing by which cri­te­ria, that the use of heavy oil be banned and ship­ping com­pa­nies should aim to re­duce their emis­sions by, for in­stance, us­ing hy­brid en­gines. Vauraste said an up­date of the Po­lar Code, ad­dress­ing some of th­ese is­sues, could be on the agenda for the Arc­tic Eco­nomic Coun­cil. The im­pact of the ‘mega-ships’ on small arc­tic com­mu­ni­ties is also be­com­ing a con­cern. Sval­bard an ar­chi­pel­ago mid­way be­tween Europe’s north­ern­most point and the North Pole - is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a tourism boom, with the num­ber of overnight stays by vis­i­tors ris­ing 14 per­cent in July year-on-year to 18,000. “I stay home when the cruise ship tourists come. Too many peo­ple at the same time. It is re­ally stress­ful,” said Fredric Froe­berg, 37, a Swedish guide who runs ex­cur­sions on snow scoot­ers and boats from Longyear­byen, Sval­bard’s main set­tle­ment, with around 2,160 in­hab­i­tants. “This place should not be­come too big. Oth­er­wise it will be­come over­ex­ploited, like so many other places around the world. What is fan­tas­tic here is the na­ture.”—Reuters

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