New Cruise Ship Route Opens in the Arctic Thanks to Climate Change

Climate change has caused a litany of problems—stronger storms, deeper droughts, eroding shorelines. But there’s one business that climate change might soon help out—luxury cruise lines.

Global warming has caused Arctic sea ice to retreat, opening up new opportunities for cruise ships. The seas north of Canada once required an icebreaker to pass through year-round. Since 2007, ships could travel between the Atlantic and Pacific through an ice-free route in the summer. It’s the Northwest Passage that ocean explorers like Captain James Cook dreamed of finding, soon to be enjoyed by wealthy passengers playing shuffleboard as they pass melting icebergs.

USEAlexander Baxevanis - CC-BY
The luxury liner Crystal Serenity at sea.

However, traffic so far has been modest—only 17 vessels took the passage last year. Oil industry ships have explored drilling opportunities, and adventure sailors have tested their skills against the passage. This August, the Crystal Cruises line will experiment on a bigger scale—with a luxury liner named the Crystal Serenity that carries 1,700 passengers and crew. The cruise is now sold out: the cheapest tickets cost a mere $22,000.

But the Northwest Passage is still a dangerous place. The planned cruise has the U.S. Coast Guard nervous. They’ve planned a table-top simulation in April to start thinking through worst-case scenarios. Here’s Suzanne Goldenberg, reporting for Wired:

The 13 April table-top planning exercise, involving US and Canadian coast guard and government officials, will walk Crystal operators and rescue officials through the nightmarish scenario of rescuing hundreds of passengers up to 1,000 miles from the nearest coast guard base, officials said.

“We all have to be very proactive in trying to game out what we do in an emergency situation,” Lt Commander Jason Boyle, the coast guard’s prevention officer for the Alaska region, said in a telephone interview.

Communicating with a ship in distress could prove difficult. Cell phone reception is spotty in the Northwest Passage. For this first voyage, an icebreaker vessel with two helicopters will escort the Crystal Serenity from Anchorage to New York, a company spokesperson told Wired. In addition, the ship will carry Arctic researchers in an effort to protect local cultures and wildlife.

Native people of the Arctic face threats to their way of life from climate change. The loss of permafrost on the coast endangers dozens of Native Alaskan villages, which have begun eroding into the sea, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. The loss of sea ice makes it much harder to hunt the seals and walruses that have sustained them for generations.

Tourism in areas threatened by climate change, though, is booming, which could further disrupt native people’s lifestyles. The number of cruise ship passengers visiting Greenland has doubled in recent years, partly because it contains vanishing ice sheets. The Crystal Serenity’s voyage could herald a new era of Arctic luxury cruises.