Warming oceans help and hinder polar cruise sailings

Warming oceans help and hinder polar cruise sailings

When it comes to polar cruising, climate change giveth and
climate change taketh away.

Expedition cruises are suddenly hot products, none more so
than polar itineraries that promise to follow in the footsteps of legendary
explorers and deliver life-changing experiences. Those itineraries have become
possible as a result of warming seas melting polar ice, which opens new
opportunities for cruise companies.

Particularly attractive to many has been the prospect of
sailing Canada’s Northwest Passage, a cruise that attracted volumes of
publicity when the Crystal Serenity two years ago became one of the largest
ships ever to sail it. 

But this year has exposed some of the downside associated
with polar expedition cruises after at least three itineraries billed as
Northwest Passage sailings had to turn back or change routes to bypass key
channels.

The reason is that the passage, for the first time in a
number of years, is choked with ice. Canadian authorities this month informed
the French expedition line Ponant that it would not be advisable to sail its
two 184-passenger ships, Le Boreal and Le Soleal, through the Northwest Passage
on 21-day cruises from Greenland to Nome, Alaska.

Instead, passengers who had paid prices starting at $31,000
per person had to settle for an exploration of Baffin Island and other
destinations in the eastern Canadian Arctic before returning to Greenland.

Navin Sawhney, Americas CEO for Ponant, said that safety
dictated a change in routes and that expedition cruising comes with no
guarantees. 

“For reasons people can understand, nature does do
things that sometimes require rerouting,” Sawhney said. “Ice
conditions continuously change, and at some point, if it becomes unsafe to go
through that ice, we have to make that decision.”

The detour will cost Ponant the revenue from several U.S.
West Coast cruises that had to be cancelled because the ships could not make it
through. Le Boreal, for example, after returning to Greenland on Sept. 18, will
deadhead through the Panama Canal to San Diego to resume its normal schedule on
Oct. 9.

Cruises from Nome, Alaska, to Vancouver and Vancouver to San
Diego were scrubbed, and the passengers were offered “other programs,”
Sawhney said.

Polar itineraries are alluring to cruise lines partly
because they’re so lucrative.

“The [Northwest Passage] is a highly popular, highly
in-demand program of ours, and people plan it a couple years out,” said
Sawhney, who added that the two detoured polar cruises had been sold out.

That profit can disappear in a hurry, however, when the
conditions don’t shake out as advertised.

Scientists who study the ever-changing ice in the Northwest
Passage say they’re not surprised by the impediment.

“The ice conditions are highly variable,” said
Mark Serreze, a professor of geography at the University of Colorado in Boulder
and director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center there.

“What’s really important in terms of whether the
Northwest Passage is open or not is two things,” Serreze said. “One
is what the temperatures are. If it is a really warm summer, you melt out a lot
of ice there, and that will help you. The other thing is the prevailing weather
patterns, because the sea ice doesn’t just sit there. The winds blow it around.

“And so part of what’s happened this summer is you’ve
had a pattern of winds that have tended to pack up the ice to the western
entrance of the Northwest Passage on the Pacific side. So … unfavorable
weather patterns have led to it not being open this year.”

That wasn’t the case two years ago when the 1,070-passenger
Crystal Serenity, accompanied by an icebreaker, made its foray through the passage
on a month-long, west-to-east itinerary at fares averaging about $30,000 per
person. It repeated the cruise in 2017 but chose not to this year.

Serreze said long-term trends have encouraged the cruise
lines. 

“What you’ve seen through the years [is] there’s less
and less ice in the Northwest Passage at the end of summer than there used to
be,” he said. “So overall ice conditions are getting more mild. And
that’s because things are warming up. But superimposed upon that overall
tendency, that trend toward less ice in the Northwest Passage, there’s a lot of
variability.”

Moreover, ice floe conditions are hard to predict. While
cruises are marketed years in advance, forecasts are really reliable only about
10 days out, Serreze said.

Impassable ice in the Northwest Passage isn’t like a skating
pond. It’s often 80% ice and 20% water, Serreze said.

“In the channel of the Canadian Arctic archipelago, the
ice there tends to be kind of thick,” he said. “So that’s the danger
here. Even if you had fairly low-concentration ice, the ice floes that are
there could be pretty thick and could pose a considerable problem.”

Climate change is also causing massive icebergs to break off
of Greenland and the Antarctic shelf, but those wouldn’t make their way into
the Northwest Passage, Serreze said.

In addition to Ponant, Norway-based Hurtigruten also altered
its Northwest Passage cruise from Canada, diverting the planned Sept. 9
departure of its ship Fram from Cambridge Bay to a new launch at Pond Inlet,
about 650 miles to the east. 

Ice conditions have also made sailing in the Russian
northeast and Alaska’s Aleutian Islands challenging this year, according to the
Ice Data Center. The Silversea Cruises ship Silver Explorer was forced to skip
many of its planned calls on a July 25 departure from Nome after weather maps
showed most of them iced in.

Felicia Cassanos, a retired business executive from Michigan
who was on the cruise, said that most of the substitute port calls were short
and “not particularly interesting.” What’s more, she said that a
much-anticipated stop to observe wildlife on Wrangell Island turned into a
two-hour excursion on Zodiac boats.

Cassanos said Silversea eventually offered passengers 40%
credits toward future cruises.

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