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The Price of “Discovering” the Arctic – Part I

The Price of “Discovering” the Arctic – Part I

September 17, 2014

By Gianna De Filippis

The Arctic is by no means a new tourist destination. In fact, since the 1890s, tourists have been taking ship-based trips to see the “land of mountains and glaciers, of splintered peaks and icy bays.” But modern day tourism—mainly in the form of massive, fuel-guzzling cruise ships—requires a critical evaluation.

In examining the impact of large-scale tourism in the Arctic, it is clear that “discovering” the polar region may come at a steep price. By polluting the environment and depleting valuable local resources, many forms of Arctic cruise tourism contribute to the destruction of the region’s exceptional wilderness and the alteration of cultural dimensions of local life (specifically, the Inuit hunting culture).

As the cruise industry continues to thrive in the region, we must address its impact and create better alternatives to its environmentally damaging and at times, culturally insensitive practices. While a few cruise ship companies have already started this process, such as Quark and Inuit-owned Cruise North Expeditions, others continue to pose threats to the region.

The Cruise Tourism Boom

While it’s almost impossible to know the exact number of cruise ship visitors to the entire Arctic region (which includes parts of Canada, Russia, the United States, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland), the industry is certainly on a rapid rise. For example, Alaska alone experienced a 12 percent increase in cruise ship passengers between 2011 and 2013—hiking the total up from 883,000 to a staggering 999,000.  Combine this number with the thousands that visit Svalbard (Norway), Nanuvut (Canada), Greenland (Denmark), and parts of the Russian Arctic every year, and it is easy to see how tourists now exceed the local population at many Arctic destinations (the population of Nunavut, one of the most popular tourist destinations, is only 36, 408).

The cruise ship industry has been the fastest growing segment in the travel industry since 1980, with an annual growth rate of 8.4 percent. Due to a combination of diminishing ice cover (allowing for easier vessel movement), advancements in vessel technology, and the romantic desire to experience “untouched wilderness,” Alaska has become the second most popular cruise destination in all of North America (behind the Caribbean) and the fifth most popular cruise destinations in the world.

Yet as cruise ship passengers admire the (decreasingly) glaciated landscape, they need to be conscious about their own environmental and social practices, as well as the practices of the cruise ship team with whom they have travelled If they don’t, they may expedite the “implied expiration date of the experience”—creating environmental and cultural consequences for an already threatened region.

Environmental Effects

The environmental effects of cruise tourism in the Arctic are extensive. The high volume of cruise ships in Arctic waters can potentially lead to devastating oil spills, the destruction of the Arctic vegetation, and major oceanic pollution. In fact, cruise ship accidents have already led to cases of oceanic pollution; in 2010, tanks carrying fuel and sludge aboard the cruise ship MV Clipper Adventurer ruptured—contaminating the surrounding water—when the ship hit an uncharted rock shelf near Nunavut.

And, while potentially disastrous, accidents aren’t the only cause of concern when discussing oceanic pollution. Most cruise ship passengers traveling to the Arctic consume a great deal of energy and resources while producing a lot of waste—which many cruise ship companies dispose of in the ocean. To give you an idea of how much pollution that is, Ocean Conservancy  estimates that each cruise ship passenger generates up to 10 gallons of sewage and 85 gallons of gray water (wastewater generated from wash hand basins, showers and baths) daily. Thus, a typical cruise ship with 3,000 passengers and crew can produce up to 30,000 gallons of sewage and 255,000 gallons of gray water every day. Furthermore, the magnitude of the solid waste produced and disposed of by cruise ships is staggering; for a typical cruise ship (3,000 passengers and crew), about 50 tons of solid waste is generated during a one-week cruise.  While many cruise companies have created Arctic-specific “clean” initiatives, every cruise company that travels to the Arctic disposes at least part of its ship waste in the ocean.

While laws have been put forth to regulate waste disposal, the laws that have actually been enacted do not prohibit disposing waste in the ocean. For example, U.S. law prohibits the disposal of all garbage within three miles of the coast and enforces Marpol Annex V, which prohibits the dumping of garbage from three to 25 miles offshore unless it is ground to pieces smaller than one inch. And while many cruise ships are legally getting away with polluting the ocean with waste produced by their staff members and passengers, some are not even following the few laws that are in place.

In addition to mass pollution, cruise ships require a mass consumption of fossil fuels, and thus emit greenhouse gasses—which have global consequences. Satellite data show that over the past 30 years, Arctic sea ice cover has declined by 30 percent in September, the month that marks the end of the summer melt season. With melting glaciers and the manifestation of warmer, shorter winters, scientists have already observed a migration of the tree line and the thawing of permafrost–which releases methane and contributes to the already catastrophic warming of the planet. This is significant, given that, if the ice in Greenland alone were to melt, sea levels could increase by up to 21 feet.

In Part II of “Discovering the Arctic,” we explore the economic and cultural effects of cruising through the polar region, as well as some of the responses that can be taken to address the issue.



Gianna De Filippis is a former research assistant at World Policy Institute.

[Photo Courtesy of NASA/Kathryn Hansen]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.