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A Myth No More: Global Warming Opens Up the Northwest Passage

ANCHORAGE (CN) — One week ago, as an Inuit village voted to move inland, away from a rising ocean, a cruise ship departed from Seward on a maiden voyage through the fabled Northwest Passage — both events brought to Alaska by climate change.

The warming climate is thawing permafrost and melting sea ice, eroding the shoreline of the island village of Shishmaref, which voted 89-78 on Aug. 16 to pack up and move. Photos of a house sliding from Shishmaref into the Bering Sea were flashed around the world as the village voted.

Also that day, the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity embarked on a voyage to New York through the Northwest Passage, a once-mythical route between Europe and Asia, which explorers have sought since John Cabot tried, and failed, in 1497.

The average temperature in Alaska has increased by 3 degrees Fahrenheit in the past 60 years, according to a 2014 study by the U.S. Global Change Research Program — more than twice the warming in the rest of the United States.

Shishmaref, 120 miles north of Nome on the island of Sarichef, has lost 200 feet of shoreline in the past 40 years, according to a February site selection study done for the island.

The warming ocean has caused many species of fish, birds and mammals to shift their migrations farther north in search of habitat needed for food and reproduction.

Though it has devastated Shishmaref, the slow unlocking of the Northwest Passage has opened avenues to commerce, natural resources such as undersea oil, and now, tourism.

Shipping activity in the Northwest Territories increased significantly from 2009 to 2013 due to reduced sea ice, according to a 2015 report from the province on the state of the environment.

Since polar explorer Roald Amundsen completed the first crossing of the Northwest Passage in 1906, fewer than one in 10 attempts to follow him succeeded, until the oil tanker SS Manhattan, refitted with an ice-breaker-bow, made a roundtrip voyage in 1969, accompanied by four ice-breakers.

A record 30 vessels made it through the Northwest Passage in 2012, according to the Northwest Territories report. The first large bulk carrier made it through in 2013, but only 17 ships made it the next year, due to a short, cold summer — evidence of scientists' cautionary reports of the unpredictability of sea ice in constant movement.

Royal Dutch Shell began exploratory drilling on offshore leases in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in 2012. Despite initial optimism, Shell this year released all but one of the leases it had purchased in 2008.

The drilling efforts led to protests from environmental groups, but what frustrated the short drilling seasons were technical and regulatory difficulties, equipment failures and little oil from a 2015 exploratory well.


Arctic melting has brought economic fervor to the so-called Arctic Eight circumpolar nations: the United States, Canada, Denmark, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Russia. (Greenland is an autonomous Danish territory.)

Shipment of goods and commodities through the Northwest Passage from Europe to China and back would cut thousands of miles off the journey, reducing costs and fuel consumption — creating excitement not seen since the search for the passage began more than 500 years ago.

The Fabled Northwest Passage

Finding the Northwest Passage became a British obsession during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603). Richard Hakluyt (1553-1616) coined the term while promoting colonization of North America and a trade route to the Orient, in his classic, and still valuable, multivolume "Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation."

Queen Elizabeth, less enthusiastic than Hakluyt, called the area now known as Baffin Island Meta Incognita, a "land of uncertain worth."

Russell Potter, an author and professor specializing in the history of Arctic exploration, compares the era to the space race of the 1960s.

How many died looking for the Northwest Passage will never be known, though the names of the explorers remain: Jacques Cartier, Martin Frobisher, Henry Hudson, William Baffin, and John Franklin, who died with all 128 of his men in the "Lost Expedition" that set out in 1845.

Scurvy claimed hundreds more, and rumors of cannibalism by the last to die have been corroborated by reports from Inuits and a few archaeological finds.

Amundsen was the first to succeed, a three-year voyage with a crew of six in a 47-ton sloop. But the frozen north claimed him in 1928, when he disappeared while flying over the Arctic Ocean, searching for a lost dirigible.

With global warming expected to accelerate this century, precipitation in Alaska will increase, yet the state will become drier, as the rain melts the ice and permafrost, and evaporates more quickly.

The sufferings of intrepid explorers will be replaced by courtroom battles: for mineral and oil deposits, environmentalists fighting for threatened and endangered species, Alaskan natives whipsawed between economic development and a fight to keep their homes and the hunting grounds abundant with wildlife and plants they depend on for survival.

Moving a Village

Sarichef is a barrier island 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle and 126 miles north of Nome, the nearest large community on the Bering Sea. Shishmaref was built on permafrost and fine, siltlike sand on a narrow spit of land 3 miles long and a quarter-mile wide, surrounded by water.

With the Chukchi Sea to the north and an inlet to the south, the village is in the 2.7-million-acre Bering Land Bridge National Reserve. The reserve protects what's left of the land bridge, also known as Beringia, which connected modern-day Asia to North America during the last Ice Age, more than 12,000 years ago.


Archaeological evidence of Inuit habitation on Sarichef Island dates back several centuries. In the 1900s it became a supply center for gold mining in and around Nome. A post office was established in 1901.

The only way on or off the island for the 600 residents of Shishmaref, most of whom are Inupiaq/Inuit, is by boat or plane. A single, short paved road starts just outside of town and ends at the airport; the rest of Shishmaref's streets are sand. Most people get around on ATVs in summer and snowmobiles in the winter.

The island's shores erode into the sea in large chunks every time a big storm hits. The villagers have been fighting the erosion since the 1950s, and have built sea walls since the 1970s, to protect the community from storm surges. Each sea wall eventually washes away.

In October 1997 a severe storm eroded more than 30 feet of the northern shoreline, requiring 14 homes and the Army National Guard to relocate. Since then the shoreline has disappeared by an average of 3 to 5 feet per year: 22 feet in a single gulp after one large storm, according to an Army Corps of Engineers aerial photo comparison study.

The village still does not know whether they will move to an inland site yet to be determined, or move a family at a time to larger communities. Either way, it will be more difficult to maintain the particular characteristics of Shishmaref culture.

Warmer temperatures have reduced the time the Chukchi Sea stays frozen each year, leaving the coastline more exposed to early spring and early winter storms. Residents say the sand will "just melt with the water," and that it has become harder to fish and hunt for subsistence food because of the changing freeze and melt patterns.

The Aug. 16 decision to move the village came on the third such vote in 43 years. Villagers voted in May 1973 and again in July 2002. Both times, relocation efforts lost momentum.

The proposed site in the 1970s was determined unsuitable for development because it too would be built on unsustainable permafrost. And the community was reluctant to abandon the investment it had made building its school in 1977.

A feasibility study completed after the 2002 vote estimated it would cost $250 million to relocate residents along the mainland coast.

"The reality of moving is very complicated. There is not enough funding for relocation efforts," Esau Sinnok, 19, wrote in a December 2015 blog post, as a member of the Department of the Interior's Arctic youth ambassador program, from Shishmaref.

"Even though we made this decision, everyone wants to stay — especially the older generations who have spent their whole lives in Shishmaref. But we realize we have no choice," Sinnok wrote.

He described moving 13 houses, including his grandmother's, from one end of the island to the other in the past 15 years because of erosion.

"Within the next two decades the whole island will erode away completely," he wrote. "It's more than a loss of place, it is a loss of identity."


Sinnok told National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" in July that he would vote to move the village, "so we'll have a community of Shishmaref for future generations."

"If we do not do anything, we'll be forced to move to another city like Nome or Kotzebue or Fairbanks or Anchorage, and not many people will move to the same place. So that means our unique community of Shishmaref will soon die out because we have our unique dialect of Inupiat Eskimo language, our unique Eskimo dancing, our unique gospel singing translated in Inupiat. All that will soon die out if we do not move as a community," he told NPR.

The vote to move was 89 to 78, according to the village clerk's office. Now the City Council will discuss the two relocation options, narrowed down from four, provided by the February site selection feasibility study.

Tourists in the Northwest Passage

While the people of Shishmaref contemplate where to move, and how to find the money to do it, nearly twice as many are cruising in luxury through the no-longer mythical Northwest Passage.

The Crystal Serenity, one of three vessels in the Crystal Cruise fleet, based in Los Angeles and owned by Genting Hong Kong, is a 68,000-ton luxury cruise liner with a capacity of 1,060 passengers and 650 crew members.

Its 32-day voyage from Seward to New York City will make it the largest vessel of its kind to transit the Northwest Passage.

Capt. Birger Vorland, of Norway, master of the Crystal Serenity, set sail on Aug. 16 from the deep water port of Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula, a two-hour drive from Anchorage, Alaska's largest city.

The cost per person ranges from $22,000 for a stateroom to $120,000 for the "crystal penthouse with verandah." Airfare and shore excursions cost extra. The ship has six restaurants and a movie theater.

Vorland said tickets for the crossing sold out in 48-hours and the waiting list of 7,000 was the longest in company history. It plans to repeat the voyage in 2017.

The cruise has been three years in the planning, and the company said it "will be implementing a number of additional precautions to ensure the safety of all guests and crew, as well as to protect the pristine environment."

Capt. Vorland posted a video on the company website describing the precautions, training and safety systems, which includes an expedition team with experience in the Northwest Passage and two veteran Canadian Ice pilots with several decades of experience.

"Other commercial vessels normally operate with only one pilot; having two ensures there is a qualified ice pilot on the bridge 24 hours a day," Crystal said in promotional material.

Crystal contracted the ice-breaker and research vessel RSS Ernest Shackleton to escort the Serenity. The Shackleton's ice pilot is a Canadian Coast Guard officer who served as captain of Canada's largest Polar ice-breaker. The ship carries two helicopters for ice condition reconnaissance, and oil pollution mitigation gear in case of spills.

The cruise already has made stops on Kodiak, Alaska's largest island, and the second-largest in the United States, known as the Emerald Isle for its lush rainforest. A second stop came in Dutch Harbor, known as the heart of the Aleutian Island chain, and the No. 1 fishing port in the nation.


"So far the trip is amazing," passenger Michael Vertessen wrote Courthouse News in an email. Vertessen also sent the stunning pictures of the Arctic that accompany this article, via the ship's Internet and wi-fi.

Vertessen, 46, and his traveling companion Marc Ooms, 64, split their time between Brussels, Belgium and Cape Town, South Africa.

Ooms is a private equity investor and Vertessen owns a company that distributes cosmetics from South Africa to Europe. This is their sixth cruise.

"We reserved our tickets the moment it opened for sale, July 2014," Ooms and Vertessen wrote. "Seeing the glaciers was stunning. The rainforest and nature in Kodiak was also beautiful," they added before heading out to Nome for the day.

The final stop on Alaskan soil was a full day in Nome, finish line of the famed Iditarod trail, the nation's last big gold rush town, to which sled dogs brought serum to fight the diphtheria epidemic of 1925.

Nome officials have been planning for more than a year to entertain the 1,060 tourists who roamed the city Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.

"It was quite a day. Nome did itself proud," Mayor Richard Beneville wrote on his Facebook page that evening.

Capt. Vorland and the mayor exchanged gifts and joined dancers and drummers in a traditional Inupiat dance during the Blueberry Festival held in conjunction with the ship's visit.

From Nome the Crystal Serenity will move out of the Bering Sea to the Chukchi Sea, named after Russia's Chukchi people who still live on the Russian coast across the narrow sea.

The vessel will make stops in Canadian Arctic and native villages and in Greenland before stopping in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and finally New York.

The Tip of the Iceberg

Though Alaska Natives, environmentalists, scientists and commercial interests disagree on a number of issues, they all seem to agree that as sea ice thins and shrinks with climate change there will be more Arctic villages facing relocation and many more ships like Crystal Serenity to follow.

Environmentalists worry about the impact on an already stressed ecosystem: for the wildlife, the habitat, and human beings. Defense and maritime officials must be prepared to handle oil spills, or rescue operations that may necessitate large-scale evacuations from the remote Arctic.

The World Wildlife Fund took a less-than-rosy look at the Crystal Serenity cruise in a statement issued four days before its departure.

"It's because the Arctic is in meltdown that this cruise can take place. This year we saw the sea ice crash to a record low for June as it continued its downward spiral. The loss of sea ice is bad news for Arctic species like polar bears, walrus and narwhal, and for Arctic people," the environmental group said.

"WWF believes that the risk of an accident in these poorly charted, ice-infested waters is high. There is no effective technology to clean up oil spills in ice, and little infrastructure in place to deal with a major incident."

Polar program manager Rod Downie said in the statement that the World Wildlife Fund recognizes that "Arctic communities need good sustainable sources of revenue, and tourism is likely to be part of that future. We recognize the positive steps that Crystal Cruises have taken to minimize their impact, working with local communities and in particular choosing not to burn heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, which is more persistent and damaging to wildlife if spilled."

More Villages Will Move

Shishmaref will not be the last Arctic village to have to move.

"At least 12 of the 31 threatened villages have decided to relocate — in part or entirely — or to explore relocation options," the Government Accountability Office wrote in a June 2009 report.

The GAO cited an Army Corps of Engineers assessment in its report to Congress, which asked for information about the need to relocate Alaska native villages threatened by flooding and erosion.

Though at least a dozen villages have decided to move, "The March 2009 Alaska Baseline Erosion Assessment identified many villages threatened by erosion, but did not assess flooding impacts," the GAO told Congress.

At the time of the report, the village of Newtok, south of Shishmaref, had made the greatest progress. The GAO pegged Shishmarek, Kivalina and Shaktoolik as the villages that "will likely need to relocate all at once" but "have yet to identify sites that federal, state and village officials agree are safe, sustainable and desirable for subsistence lifestyle of the villagers."

In an ironic twist, for $600 per person, Serenity passengers could book an excursion flight to Shishmaref during the stopover in Nome.

The four-hour excursion was billed as a "Flight to Shishmaref: A Study in Global Warming."

"Participate in this unique excursion, which will bring you to an isolated Alaskan Native Village under threat from rising sea levels," the company's promotion states.

Vertessen and Ooms took the excursion, where they learned about the recent vote to move, the changes in sea ice and the threat of storm surges.

"For us it was the first direct confrontation with the effects of global warming," Vertessen wrote.

"A tight community being torn apart is quite shocking," he added. "It's a shame that only 18 guests of the cruise booked this excursion. The contrast between their houses, way of living and ours going back to the ship was enormous."

Vertessen had nothing but praise for the cruise line.

"Crystal does it very ecologically, with special fuel, nothing is thrown overboard and all visits are with a lot of respect to the local communities," he wrote.

Nome's Mayor Beneville called the cruise "a game changer."

The native people, scientists, environmentalists, search and rescue workers, oil and mineral companies, and now tourists are watching the Northwest Passage from close up, wondering how much of "the game" will change, and what it will mean.

Photos courtesy Michael Vertessen

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