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‘It’s all about economics’: Luxury Cruises Don’t Signal Arctic Shipping Boom, Expert Says

Crystal Cruises

The company that sent the first big luxury cruise ship through U.S. and Canadian Arctic waters is preparing the Crystal Serenity for a repeat performance in 2017. But one expert believes this year’s historic transit doesn’t mean the Arctic is likely to become a hotspot for global shipping anytime soon.

The hoopla over the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity’s arrival in New York on Sept. 16 after a 32-day voyage from Alaska through the Arctic has died down a bit. But Crystal Cruises’ CEO and President Edie Rodriguez was still enthusiastic last week as she described what she says was a smashingly successful cruise. 

“By every standard,” she said, “a monumental success!”

Coast Guard passenger-vessel safety specialist Cecil McNutt agrees – at least, to the extent that nothing bad happened.

“It pretty much went without a hitch,” he said.

Credit Crystal Cruises
The Crystal Serenity left Seward Aug. 15 and sailed around Alaska, with stopovers in Anchorage and off Nome, before transiting the Northwest Passage en route to the Atlantic Ocean.

Rodriguez says it all went off so well the company is well under way in preparing the 1,000-passenger Crystal Serenity’s second cruise next year on the same route.

“It was so popular that we are doing it again,” she said.

It would've been unthinkable until now for a big luxury cruise ship like the Crystal Serenity to transit formerly ice-choked Arctic waters, especially the Northwest Passage. But a steady decline in Arctic sea ice due to the warming climate has made it possible.

Still, sea-ice conditions in the Arctic have always been unpredictable, which is why the company went to such lengths to prepare for the cruise, including lengthy consultations with U.S. and Canadian coast guards.

But McNutt says ice wasn’t a problem this year.

Credit NSIDC
Sea ice had retreated far to the north of the Crystal Serenity's route around Alaska and through the Northwest Passage as of Sept. 10, according to Colorado-based National Snow and Ice Data Center. The orange line shows the mean minimum summertime extent of Arctic sea ice based on satellite measurements taken in mid-September from 1981 to 2010.

“I got some reports from the ship itself that showed that the vessel was sailing basically in pretty much ice-free conditions,” he said.

In fact, one of the ship’s passengers told a reporter they spent much of their voyage looking for sea ice, instead looking out for it.

But one of the predictable things about the Arctic is that conditions there are unpredictable. McNutt says that’s why rough weather that set in late last month forced the Coast Guard relocate an evacuation site that was to be used in a big field-training exercise held to practice rescuing passengers from a cruise ship that runs into trouble in waters off Alaska.

“I guess the one lesson learned is that Mother Nature always rules,” he said.

And that, says Arctic maritime expert Lawson Brigham, is why the Crystal Serenity’s voyage does not necessarily signal the beginning of boom in cruise tourism or other kinds of shipping in this part of the circumpolar north. Brigham says Arctic sea ice has receded enough in late summer for cruise ships and other vessels to take advantage of the open water. But he says for the rest of the year, it’s as difficult and expensive to operate in the region as it’s always been.

Credit Mark Melham/UAF SNRE
Brigham Lawson takes questions after delivering a lecture titled "International Maritime Challenges in the Central Arctic Ocean" on Sept. 13 at UAF's International Arctic Research Center.

“The challenge for using the Arctic Ocean for navigation is that it is, in fact, ice-covered,” he said. “It’s ice-covered partially or fully likely nine months out of the year, through (the end of) the century.”

Brigham is a distinguished professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, and a retired Coast Guard officer with years of experience serving in the Arctic. He thinks despite all the talk of a shipping boom in the Arctic Ocean brought on by receding sea ice opening up more shipping lanes, the law of economics make that unlikely.

“It is all about economics,” he said.

Brigham says the only type of shipping that’s likely increase in the near future is the kind that brings raw materials out of the region that have become more accessible by receding sea ice.

Credit National Academy of Sciences
Numerous shipping lanes crisscross the Arctic Ocean off Russia. The blue lines designate lanes safe for "open water" ships, which generally cruise in ice-free waters, and roughly correspond with the Northern Sea Route. Red lines designate lanes reserved for polar-class ships, designed to operate in icy polar waters.

“The biggest increase in traffic will be the movement of natural resources out of the Arctic to global market,” he said.

Brigham thinks that kind of shipping isn’t likely to increase much on this side of the Arctic until global prices rebound for such commodities as iron ore, nickel, copper and hydrocarbons. And even then, he expects the shipping lanes on the Eurasian side of the Arctic Ocean will be busier because there’s generally less sea ice along that coastline and because nations there have for decades been building up their shipping and industrial infrastructure.

“Where is offshore development? Where is hydrocarbon development? In the Norwegian Arctic right now and in the Russian Arctic – not in our Arctic and not in the Canadian Arctic.”

Brigham says receding sea ice may open shorter Arctic routes that may enable ships to get their goods to market more quickly. But that’s not guaranteed, due to weather and other uncertainties that come with operating in the region. Those include a lack of up-to-date maps and hydrography of the continental shelves and Arctic Ocean floor.

Brigham he says recent expansions of the Panama and Suez canals and other facilities in the lower latitudes suggest investors aren’t likely to gamble big sums on the still-risky venture of Arctic shipping. At least, not yet.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.