photo by Christopher Michel
I came upstairs late one night a few weeks ago, euphoric in the wake of a New York Mets playoff victory, and announced to my wife that I had found an interesting possible summer vacation for 2016.
Crystal Cruises plans to run a first-in-history passenger voyage across the top of North America, from Alaska through the fabled Northwest Passage, southward past Greenland and Labrador to New York.
I should note that my wife and I are not generally cruise people. Every weekend, I can see cruise ships setting sail from my Fort Lauderdale apartment, but I am never on board. While I find the technology fascinating, the thought of a spending a vacation week in close quarters with thousands of other people has little appeal to me (or my wife).
This Arctic trip would be different - not entirely in a good way. For one thing, it would take a month, rather than a week. For another, it would cost a minimum of more than $40,000 for a couple. And third, it would literally take us about 4,000 miles from the nearest palm tree. In fact, we would be a long way from pretty much everything except the onboard entertainment and the odd seal. Crystal Cruises cannot even guarantee so much as a polar bear sighting.
But this cruise, with its icebreaker escort vessel, would mark the first time an average tourist could pass by sea from the Pacific to the Atlantic this way, thanks to the diminished Arctic ice pack.
Meanwhile, literally on the other side of the world, a Chinese shipping company is proposing to start the first regular freight passage from Asia to Europe via the Siberian coast: the “Northern Sea Route,” or NSR, as it is often called. China Ocean Shipping (Group) Co. has conducted two successful test runs, the Wall Street Journal reported, and says it will lay out plans for an NSR fleet by the end of 2015. The NSR has been relatively ice-free in recent summers, and is regularly plied by the Russian military and energy development vessels. While cargo does pass this route now - the current record was 1.4 million tons of cargo on 71 ships in 2013 - the Chinese company would be the first to run a regular shipping schedule.
All of this maritime activity is made possible by the fact that the Arctic ice pack is both much smaller and notably thinner in recent summers compared to several decades ago. This is a point much-noted by those who believe Arctic changes foreshadow equally drastic climate effects in the rest of the world.
But the Arctic may not be quite as changed as some think. This summer’s minimum ice extent, while the fourth-lowest since records began in 1979, is basically just part of a plateau that was reached in 2007. Summer ice coverage has fluctuated since then, setting a record low in 2012, though it has remained well below the average of the last decades of the 20th century.
Still, the ice along the Canadian shores that my proposed cruise would traverse has been both abundant and fairly thick recently. The National Snow and Ice Data Center notes that only one route through the Northwest Passage opened by summer’s end this year: the route Roald Amundsen took at the turn of the 20th century.
Amundsen, a Norwegian explorer who took pride in being called “the last of the Vikings,” successfully crossed the Northwest Passage in a voyage that began in 1903, using a 70-foot fishing boat. Crystal Cruises cannot follow Amundsen’s route, however, because some of the channels he used were barely more than three feet deep. Other routes through the Northwest Passage never cleared of ice this year. Incidentally, Amundsen’s crossing took three years, which makes the one-month cruise time seem a bit more reasonable.
What happens next in the Arctic remains to be seen. In the end, though, euphoria fades and reality sets in. Apart from the inconvenience and expense, a month is more time than I want to spend out of touch with my work and with my elderly mother and other close family.
I have to face the facts in the cold light of day. I won’t be part of that historic cruise, and the Mets lost the World Series.