Warming oceans help and hinder polar cruise sailings

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POND INLET, Northwest Passage
Arctic sunset near Pond Inlet at the eastern end of the Northwest Passage. Photo Credit: Exclusive Aerials/Shutterstock

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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