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Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.


Arctic cruises are the latest thing in high-end tourism. Icebergs, polar bears, beluga whales, awe-inspiring vistas and isolated Inuit communities – what's not to like for the jaded traveller?

This summer, thousands of people will sail the Arctic's increasingly ice-free waters. At the very top end, the world's most luxurious cruise ship, the Crystal Serenity, will traverse the Northwest Passage from Anchorage to New York City. The 1,070 passengers will pay up to $120,000 (U.S.) for the privilege.

But here's the thing: Arctic cruises involve greater hazards and environmental impact than just about any other kind of tourism.

Among the hazards are small chunks of icebergs called "growlers" that are exceptionally hard and float low in the water, making them difficult to spot. In 2007, a small ice-strengthened expedition cruise ship struck a growler and sank during an Antarctic voyage, in conditions similar to those now found in the Arctic. And while climate change is melting the sea ice, which forms on the surface of the ocean in winter, icebergs are actually increasing in number, as melt water lubricates the movement of land-based glaciers into the sea.

Running aground is another hazard, given that Arctic waters are poorly charted. In 2010, an expedition cruise ship ran onto a shoal in the Northwest Passage that was not shown on marine charts. Fortunately, the weather was good and a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker was only two days' sailing away.

Arctic weather is unpredictable and often severe. "Icing," caused by ocean spray freezing onto the superstructure of a ship, is of particular concern because it can destabilize and even capsize a vessel.

Yet search-and-rescue systems would be overwhelmed by any accident in the Arctic involving more than a few dozen people. The Canadian Forces' search-and-rescue helicopters sometimes require two days to reach the Northwest Passage from their bases in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and British Columbia.

Oil spills are also a concern. A cruise ship the size of Crystal Serenity carries more than a million litres of fuel oil. In 2004, a much smaller cargo ship lost power in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, was blown aground and broke apart, spilling 1.2 million litres of fuel oil. Almost none of it was recovered because of the remote location, severe weather, and the near-complete absence of oil-spill cleanup equipment and personnel.

Crystal Serenity is very professionally managed, which will minimize the risks. But the voyage will draw other cruise ships north, making a serious accident almost inevitable. No one expected, in 2012, that the Costa Concordia would run onto well-charted rocks along the coast of Italy.

Just as problematically, Arctic cruises constitute a form of "extinction tourism," in which people travel to see a species or culture while they still can.

Climate change is advancing quickly in the Arctic, threatening a food chain based upon plankton and Arctic cod that have evolved to live in cracks and crevices under the sea ice. As the ice disappears, so do these species and the predators they sustain, including beluga whales and polar bears.

Worse yet, Arctic cruises create their own climate change "feedback loop." These trips are only possible because the sea ice is melting, and their carbon-dioxide emissions contribute to even more melting in years to come.

Consider the emissions associated with the Crystal Serenity: Passengers will fly from their homes to Anchorage, and return at journey's end from New York. On board the ship, they will enjoy food products that have also travelled great distances. They will be cared for by 655 crew members, each with their own smaller but still significant climate footprint. All the while, the ship will be burning fuel oil for propulsion, heat and electricity.

The best argument in favour of Arctic cruises is that they raise awareness about climate change. Witnessing a beautiful ecosystem under threat can move some people to action, but I have also seen climate-change deniers double down on their beliefs when sailing newly open Arctic waters. The issue is not whether the sea ice is melting, but whether we accept the scientific process that has produced thousands of peer-reviewed articles explaining the cause.

The Arctic is beautiful and threatened by greenhouse gas emissions, but so are the birds and flowers in your local park. If you want a safe, climate-conscious vacation, try staying closer to home.

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