Experts warn the Arctic is ill equipped to deal with a potential cruise ship disaster
Thanks to global warming, more ships than ever before will likely venture beyond the Arctic Circle this year. The melting polar ice caps have opened up new routes in recent years for natural gas exploration and tourism.
But the increased traffic, while it might be good for business, could have dire consequences in a region that is ill-prepared for a possible disaster, say experts interviewed for this story.
Lawson Brigham, a professor at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and lead author of the 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, warns that rescue and salvage capabilities along with adequate navigational charts in much of the Arctic are limited. Combined with deadly cold water, an accident could be disastrous, he says.
“The Costa Concordia on its side off the coast of Italy tells you the industry is not perfect,” Brigham says. “That’s unbelievable in the 21st century, 100 years after the Titanic. If that happened in the Arctic where there’s no infrastructure or very little, good luck. You’re on your own. In fact, if a ship like that has that kind of problem, loss of life would be catastrophic.”
The number of cruise ships venturing beyond the 66th parallel over the past eight years has more than doubled – increasing at a rate far greater than the trend in Antarctic cruising, which began more than a decade earlier.
Passengers from Svalbad, Norway, and Greenland reached more than 70,000 in 2008 and 65,000 in 2010, according to the Greenland tourism bureau. A few thousand other visitors depart from Canada and Russia each year. The number is growing but no one is keeping track of the exact number.
“Basically we went from no real activity to a whole lot of activity,” says Jackie Dawson, a professor at Ottawa University who has studied the cruise ship industry. “The problem is there is no formal policy structure for the industry. There’s no real guidelines for cruise ships in Canada.”
In 2010, the grounding in the Canadian Arctic of the Clipper Adventurer opened many people’s eyes to the possibility of a disaster in some of the world’s most untouched waters. In 2007, a cruise ship named the Explorer hit an iceberg in the Antarctic and eventually sank.
“It’s a matter of time before we see some sort of major disaster in the Arctic,” Dawson says.
It is not just academics and conservationists who are concerned. The sharp increase has caught the U.S. government without a clear national policy, said Vice Admiral Brian Salerno, Deputy Commandant for Operations, U.S. Coast Guard, at an arctic leadership conference in April.
“More and more of our attention is being drawn to the arctic issues by individual federal agencies and with good reason,” Salerno says. “The range of concerns are really quite broad. Changing conditions in the arctic raises significant questions about national security.”
Brigham and others are pushing the United Nation’s International Maritime Organization to pass a so-called Polar Code, which would establish standards to make cruise ships and other vessels in the Arctic safer and potentially less harmful to the environment.
“A mandatory Polar Code would require some marine safety equipment along with some advanced training for the ice navigators in the pilot house, because it’s not just that they are operating in ice-covered waters, they are remote cold harsh polar waters,” Brigham says.
One of the rules being discussed would require multiple vessels in the same vicinity, which might not be acceptable for cruise lines that want unique itineraries. A Polar Code might also require the hulls of ships that travel to the Arctic be ice-strengthened. Such ships can better withstand a collision with an iceberg. No one keeps numbers of how many ships in the Arctic have strengthened hulls, but estimates say very few.
Debate over the new rules has dragged on for several years with possible ratification expected no earlier than 2014. Even then, environmental concerns might not be fully addressed, Brigham predicts.
It is at the IMO where smaller countries such as the Bahamas and Vanuato, where the maritime industry represents the largest share of the economy, can influence debate.
“Let’s be frank, the maritime industry is one of the world’s largest industries with lots of clout in the world,” Brigham said. “They may not want to spend a lot of extra money to retool their big ships to make them polar capable.”
Along with safety, protecting the Arctic’s sensitive marine environment remains a top concern. The potential grounding of an oil tanker represents perhaps the greatest threat.
The Polar Code could potentially increase regulations on the type of fuel and waste discharge standards, said John Kaltenstein, who attends IMO meetings for Friends of the Earth.
The San Francisco-based environmental group wants to ban the use of heavy diesel fuel, also known as bunker fuel. Last year, the IMO established a ban on such fuel in the Antarctic. Bunker fuel is much tougher to clean up and when its combusted, the particulate matter accelerates the decline in sea ice.
“We believe it’s in the best interests for environmental protection of the Arctic to move away from the heavy fuel oil because of the problems it represents not only when its combusted for air emissions but when it spills,” Kaltenstein said.
Industry touts safety
The captains who navigate Arctic waters are often some of the most competent mariners in the world. One of those captains, Leif Skog, heads marine operations for Lindblad Expeditions and skippers the NG Explorer. Skog was the recent architect of an emergency contingency plan for all passenger ships in the Antarctic, which focused mostly on communication between nearby vessels. Skog, who follows the IMO, believes the Polar Code will eventually pass.
“The Polar Code has taken much longer than expected,” Skog said. “This first draft will probably not regulate the environmental aspects of vessels operating in polar water. The focus is initially on the safety and later the environmental concerns will be addressed.”
Skog believes the new rules will include a ban on heavy diesel. For the past 15 years, all Lindblad ships have operated on cleaner burning light diesel oil, Skog says.
The smaller, the better
Size matters when it comes to cruise ships and how much effect they have on the environment. Passenger ships in the Arctic vary from less than 100 passengers to more than 1,000.
Ilja Leo Lang, a spokesperson for the Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators, said cruise ship travel in the Arctic remains safe. The organization represents strictly expedition cruise vessels of no more than 318 passengers. Lang says none of the association’s 23 members use heavy diesel fuel, which is prohibited in Svalbard, Norway, one of the largest ports serving the Arctic along with Greenland. (Other operators depart from Canada or Russia.)
One of the region’s largest carriers, Quark Expedition, says all its ships in either the Arctic or Antarctic burn light marine gas oil, says Courteny Owins, a company spokeswoman.
“Quark also aims to differentiate itself from competitors by being the ‘ecologically-minded’ operator to the Polar Regions,” Owins says. We announced in the spring of 2012 that we are the first operator to offer inclusive carbon compensation, creating the first carbon-neutral voyages to Antarctica in the industry.”
It is the larger ships carrying more than 1,000 passengers that could represent the biggest threat to human life, Brigham said. Currently, Los Angeles-based Crystal Cruises operates some of the largest vessels in the Arctic water.
“What we’re really concerned about is the big cruise ship that comes up from Miami,” he says. “It doesn’t appear to be the right vessel for polar waters, but it can carry a lot of people and make a lot of money. The question is how safe is it?”
The last frontier
The draw to the Arctic has been one that has captivated mankind since the earliest days sailing ships crossed the ocean looking for new trading routes. The heroic tales of Ernest Shackleton and other explorers following him cemented the allure.
Cruise ship passengers are largely drawn to the area to experience what those explorers must have seen. For many, it represents the last chance to see an untouched region and to catch a glimpse of a threatened or endangered species like the polar bear.
It is ironic
“It’s just very ironic and backwards,” Dawson says.
Dawson explains how it is global warming caused by carbon emissions from engines like the ones that power ships which contribute to the melting ice caps, making the sight of the polar bears rare in the first place.
And if it were not for the diminished ice, cruise ships could not reach much of the Arctic anyway, says Dawson.
“It’s really a net negative industry when you think of all the social, environmental and economic impacts,” she says.