1. Sep, 2016

Cruising the Arctic: the end of a pristine territory.

Sea ice in the Arctic has been melting down at a fast rate. Satellite data have  confirmed  that the  white cover of sea ice that blankets the Arctic is receding dramatically in the summer months.  This warm summer even a melt record was broken. In  areas were the ice melts completely, polar bears are forced  to go onto land and wait through the months until the next freeze-up.  In the last decades polar bears moved each summer to the ice further north that remains frozen year-round.

The melting sea ice has also opened  the way for various forms of commercial exploitation like Arctic tourism,  new shipping transits  and  drilling for oil and gas. The world now has the choice between either  preserving  the largest and relatively  untouched area in the world and its wild life, or giving a free hand to its commercial exploitation and related environmental hazards such as an increased impact of oil and fuel spills.

As Arctic ice melts, larger ships are able to reach previously difficult to access areas. A recent dramatic example is the forthcoming  trip of  Crystal Serenity,  a mega cruise ship with a capacity to hold around 1000 passengers  and 650 crew members. It is by  far the largest ship  to make its way through a route considered nearly impassable just over a century ago. The cruise will leave from Alaska then move north through the Bering Strait and across the Canadian Arctic, then making stops in Greenland and the northeastern United States before docking in New York City (see map).

The cruise through the Nordic Ice seas means a transition to a new time era unfolding  the last pristine territory in the world for mass tourism. And the tourist industry is eager to exploit the new avenues.  While  Polar bears may be the kings of the Arctic an Arctic Circle tour offers so much more. Be prepared to see breaching whales, flocks of sea-birds and spectacular tundra – either on a Zodiac excursion or from the comfort of your veranda, with a cocktail in hand’. These phrases are used in folders to attract the wealthy tourist to buy a ticket varying in price between 22.000 and 125.000 US dollars. Since the trip is not without risks the cruise vessel will be escorted by the ice breaker Ernest Shackleton.

The intended cruise has provoked  mixed reactions. Environmentalists fear that this will only open the door for further  ruthless exploitation  of the Arctic by oil companies leading to an increased risk of pollution by oil spills. Oil companies from various countries  have already penetrated the  Nordic seas, not able  to  guarantee that their activities will leave the environment intact. Some crucial questions that remain to be answered are:  where  are they  preparing to drill for oil and gas, how do they propose to execute their plans, and who is monitoring this activity? But some scientists, like  emeritus professor Arctic and Antarctic studies Lourens Hacquebord from the Univeristy of Groningen* can also see the positive side of mass ‘eco’ tourism.   Being a strong advocate of protection of the Arctic he hopes that the current visitors  will become future ‘ambassadors’  of this territory, and that  inhabitants of former isolated areas will  economically profit from the new form of tourism. Hacquebord also feels that  the central part  of  the Arctic should be declared a protected territory, with responsible tourism continuing along its borders.  

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