The first commercial cruise ship to sail through Canada's Northwest Passage was set to depart on Tuesday, part of a growing Arctic tourism industry spurred by rising temperatures and receding ice.
The ship Crystal Serenity was to depart from Anchorage, Alaska, and cut through frigid northern waters before reaching New York in one month, according to a schedule from its American operator, Crystal Cruises.
The route was first navigated more than a century ago by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, but has been ice-free only in recent years. The journey raises questions about further human degradation of a region disproportionably affected by climate change, where temperatures are rising twice as quickly as the world average.
The World Wildlife Foundation recognizes that Crystal Cruises has tried to minimize its environmental impact, but the area lacks the infrastructure to deal with potential accidents, said Andrew Dumbrille, a foundation specialist in sustainable shipping.
Crystal Serenity likely will not cause problems, but more cruises will follow, said Michael Byers, a professor at the University of British Columbia who studies Arctic sovereignty and the environment.
Byers said ships, which can traverse the waters only because of melting ice, have large carbon footprints, and an accident would be devastating for the fragile Arctic.
"They take advantage of climate change, and they cause even more climate change," Byers said. "That is an enormous problem and also a terrible irony."
Crystal Cruises did not respond to requests for comment.
The cruise was priced at a minimum of $19,755 per passenger, which is more than $600 per day higher than last year's average daily cruise price of $168.43, according to the industry analytics firm Cruise Market Watch.
Crystal Cruises has said the trip is sold out and that it is planning another cruise in 2017.
The Arctic has been warming quickly because a thaw of white ice and snow exposes darker ground and water below that absorb more of the sun's heat.
Tourism has grown in some polar areas. The number of nights spent by visitors to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard north of Norway rose
to 107,000 in 2013 from 24,000 in 1993.
While Canada claims sovereignty over the Northwest Passage that flows through parts of the country, the United States
and the European Union have
disputed that, calling the waters an international strait. (Reporting by Ethan Lou in Toronto; Editing by Dan Grebler)