When I came across a story about a sold-out cruise through the Northwest Passage planned for this summer on a giant liner carrying around a thousand passengers, I couldn't help remembering a workshop I attended in Tromsö in 2014, organized by the Washington-based Arctic Institute, Center for Circumpolar Security Studies, within the framework of Arctic Frontiers.
I wrote a story afterwards titled "Are we prepared for a catastrophe in the Arctic?" The answer I got from the experts was definitely a "no."
One scenario the experts had worked through made a particularly strong impression on me. It envisaged a cruise ship hitting an iceberg off the coast of Greenland. It was not a happy picture. More people on the ship than in the communities on land, not enough helicopters, not enough accommodation, too little medical capacity, in short a lack of infrastructure to cope, all round.
A whole new dimension
With the Crystal Serenity set to head through the Northwest Passage this August, I decided it was time to call up Malte Humpert, Director of the Arctic Institute, to get his view on the safety aspects of this -- and the current state of shipping activities in the Arctic. He said this was a whole new dimension, with almost 2,000 people, including passengers and around 600 crew:
"There's varying challenges, ranging from ice flows to uncharted depths to unpredictable waters, and so the range of risk is pretty high. Of course one can take precautions like ice pilots, having rescue equipment, icebreakers on standby, but you're still in a very remote area with very small populations, very limited capacity. So the larger these vessels get, the larger the rescue effort would be required to get people safely to land," Humpert told me.
Just a few years ago, the Costa Concordia disaster made it clear to a lot of people that modern cruise ship tourism has a lot more risks than we might have thought. So what if something like that took place in the remote regions around Spitsbergen or Greenland, where cruise tourism has been increasing, or even in the Northwest Passage? Humpert describes that as "a very horrifying scenario to think about."
The Arctic is not the Med
"The Costa Concordia was half a mile or a mile offshore in the Mediterranean, one of the most frequented cruise ship lanes in the world, and even there it took over 50 lives. In the Arctic, if you're looking at a ship with 1,800 people, first of all you're not in the Mediterranean where waters are rather temperate, and where you have calm seas most of the time. In the Arctic most likely if something goes wrong it's not going to go wrong on a nice sunny day with 5 degrees Centigrade, it's probably going to go wrong in really harsh conditions, and suddenly you have a ship with 1,500 to 1,800 people, most of the people probably elderly, in frigid waters. The largest communities are probably smaller than the amount of people on the vessel itself and even if you have a helicopter or two on standby, how long is it going to take to get those people off the ship?"
Humpert also mentioned an incident involving the "Clipper Adventurer," which ran aground in the Canadian Arctic on an uncharted rock in 2010. Fortunately, it happened in shallow water, just about three and a half meters deep, Humpert says. "They had the fortunate circumstances that they had time to get people into rubber dinghies and get them to shore. But of course if you're looking at 1,500 to 1,800 people, that's a whole different dimension", he stressed again.
Of course certain precautions can be taken.
"The Danish Coast Guard along the west coast of Greenland requires cruise ships that go into Disko Bay and Iceberg Ally on the west side to go in pairs. They have to stay within a certain distance of each other when they go into ice-infested waters, just so there is actually a second floating platform that could take aboard these people if one of the cruise ships were to get into trouble. That in my opinion is one of the largest risks. Yes, you can have all the equipment on standby, you can have ice pilots along, but if something does go wrong and you need to get people off the ship quickly -- the quickly part is the problem. And where do you put those people?"
Too big to sink?
With all of this, the problem is the huge size of today's cruise ships. The thought of almost a thousand people converging on a small, remote Arctic community is one I personally find most unattractive. (That is an example of the British art of understatement.) Humpert stresses even when cruise ships go into regular ports, they have to take people ashore in groups.
With this first trip by a giant liner through the Northwest Passage, he reckons all possible precautions will be taken. But if the voyage works well, the danger is that more and more companies will want to follow suit and send large vessels up there.
"Then suddenly we might have lower budget cruises that don't take the necessary precautions. With higher frequencies of these voyages, the risks definitely go up."
After this record warm winter and the huge decline in the amount of sea ice in some regions of the Arctic, my feeling is that people can be lulled into a false sense of security, when they hear about a "warming Arctic." Malte Humpert agrees.
"Whenever people read in the headlines "ice-free Arctic," it kind of makes it sound like the Arctic is now your local pool or the Mediterranean, suddenly. The Arctic is still a very harsh environment. Just because the ice is melting during the very short summer season and because of this 'warming' -- that does not mean its suddenly warm -- it's still a very harsh environment and you forget that small mistakes in the Arctic can rather quickly become very deadly mistakes."
The highest risk, according to the Arctic expert, is that people forget that a cruise in the Arctic can be a dangerous endeavor. "If everything goes well it would probably be the experience of a lifetime, but small errors can quickly become insurmountable in the Arctic."
Northwest Passage international waters
When it comes to regulating shipping in the region, Humpert notes that the Northwest Passage is considered an international strait. That means as long as commercial vessels or cruise ships have international certificates of transit, they are allowed to go through.
"Canada can require that vessels abide by environmental regulations, that they take on board ice pilots, the Coast Guard can prescribe certain routes. If they see that some channels along the Northwest Passage have too much ice, they can require cruise ship to go a different route. But in general, the Northwest Passage is accessible to anyone. And of course the more activity you have, the harder it becomes to ensure that environmental regulations are abided by, that accidental spills or other mishaps don't occur in the Arctic, and so its a very careful balance between allowing these first business ventures to head up into the Arctic and at the same time fulfilling these pledges we have seen over the last five to ten years that the Arctic is a pristine environment and should be protected."
I am deeply concerned that climate change is opening the Arctic so fast that it's hard for environmental protection and safety measures to keep pace. Humpert says it's always difficult for policymakers to keep up in cases like this. But he is full of praise for the oil spill and search and rescue agreements drawn up by the Arctic Council. The question is whether the assets and infrastructure are there to implement them. Icebreakers???
The cheap fuel paradox
Aside from the issue of cruise ship traffic, international freight companies have used the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast in recent years to transport gas and commodities, reducing the distance between Shanghai and Hamburg by around 6,400 kilometers compared with the Suez Canal Route.
Humpert's Arctic Institute recently conducted a study on the feasibility of the Northern Sea Route for different types of shipping, compared with the other route.
The study includes a calculator, in the form of an online tool, and allows for variables such as vessel size, ice class, distance, ice extent, fuel price, average speed, NSR fees, etc., to give a very detailed calculation of what type of transport would be economically feasible. The tool illustrates how cost curves change depending on the amount of ice, size of the vessel and the price of fuel. The calculator even takes into account ship hull designs to calculate costs.
"In 2012 and in 2013 we saw quite a bit of traffic going through the Northern Sea Route, about 70 ships in 2013 was the peak. That's still very small compared what goes through the Suez Canal, where we see around 16-, 17-, 18,000 ships passing through a year. What our study in cooperation with the Copenhagen Business School Maritime Center shows, is that the key factor is fuel prices. So if fuel prices are very low then those shortcuts don't really pay dividend for shipping companies," Humpert told me.
I was quite shocked by one fact he drew my attention to. At the moment oil prices are so low that a lot of shipping companies are choosing not to go through the Suez Canal any more. Instead, they take the long way round, choosing to go around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Humpert says this adds 3,500 miles to their journey and about 10 or 11 days of sailing time. It seems that they still save about 350,000 dollars on average by not paying transit fees for the Suez Canal.
The environmental and climate costs of the extra fuel burned clearly just do not feature!
This also has implications for the Northern Sea Route, says Humpert.
"You need special insurance, you need icebreaker escorts which are quite costly, you need to pay transit fees to the Northern Sea Route Administration. So it's an interesting calculation." The experts come to the conclusion that sometimes, for some shipping operators, at some time of year or in a given year when certain conditions are right, it may be economically feasible to go through the Northern Sea Route. At other times it may be more prudent or more economical to use the Suez Canal.
"Currently, the Northern Sea Route is a very specialized shipping environment. Very few operators have looked at it, and those that tried in 2013 haven't really come back. Last year we only saw 19 ships go through the Northern Sea Route and very, very limited cargo volumes. It will be interesting to see what happens this year as we have a new record ice low in January and February. It could be that we are heading for that kind of ice-free season where two or three months of the year you really have a practically ice-free Northern Sea Route, which would start to alter the economic calculations. But the fuel price would certainly have to be higher."
So we seem to be caught in some kind of a vicious circle. If the fuel price stays low, the Arctic will be saved for some time from increased freight traffic along the Northern Sea Route. But the price is increased emissions from the burning of all that extra cheap fuel. And that, as we know, heats up the climate further and melts ice, making it easier for shipping of whatever form to head into Arctic waters. If the fuel price goes up, companies will be keener to make use of the shorter Northern Sea Route. Unless there is some kind of miraculous, unexpected planetary cool-down somewhere in the pipeline, I can only conclude that increased shipping and the risk of a potentially catastrophic oil-spill or other incident in Arctic waters are only a matter of time.