Fortunately, a few days ago, the cruise ship, Crystal Serenity, docked safely in New York having passed through the Northwest Passage, the first ever by a traditional cruise ship without an ice-strengthened hull. Its transit through the Arctic created considerable media interest. But it also leaves in its wake a tidal wave of misinformation about the current condition of the Arctic and its melting glaciers. What has been missed is a titanic problem: icebergs, more of them, and larger than ever before.
Icebergs created potentially very hazardous conditions for the safety of the passengers aboard the ship, whose capacity is more than 1,700. Crystal Serenity sailed through an area often carpeted with hull-piercing blocks of sea ice and massive icebergs. If an accident occurred and rescue was required, the U.S. is down to one operational icebreaker, the kind of vessel that can safely get to a damaged or ice-trapped ship. Rescue might have had to be done by Canadian or Russian vessels. The Arctic Ocean is remote and treacherous.
Unfortunately, the theme of many media stories about this passage was an "increasingly ice-free Arctic." Today the Arctic is far from ice-free, a term usually defined as less than 10 percent ice coverage. Satellite imaging proves at least one-third of the Arctic Ocean is still ice-covered, even now in September at its annual minimum.
The very misleading--and dangerous--wrong assumption is that as the glaciers melt that the region will become increasingly ice-free. As John Englander points out in his bestselling book, High Tide On Main Street: Rising Sea Level and the Coming Coastal Crisis, which was recently selected by Politico as one of the fifty most important books, the opposite is true. As the Arctic melts and opens up, luring cargo and cruise ships, there will be a greater risk and more opportunities for a collision with icebergs than ever before. Even having an escort ship, as did the Crystal Serenity, does not solve the problem, as the huge blocks can "bounce" back colliding into the hull.
The different forms of ice can be confusing, so it is worth clarifying the terms. Glaciers are the slow-moving "rivers" of ice on land, from Alaska, across Canada, Russia, Greenland and Norway that work their way to the sea. When they move past the supporting land, they break off, or "calve" into icebergs, the huge floating structures of freshwater, with 90% hidden below the surface. As the glaciers warm and speed up their journey to sea, they create more icebergs, which is likely to increase for decades as the warming continues and intensifies.
Somewhat different, the floating sea ice that has surrounded the North Pole for millions of years is mostly made from saltwater and does not ride as high as icebergs. That sea ice is thinning and breaking up into huge blocks that become a rubble field described as "pack ice," smaller than icebergs. Icebergs and pack ice can shift unpredictably, blocking restricted passages, often in just a matter of hours. And this ice can trap a ship or tear the hull apart if it is not built specifically as "ice-strengthened."
For example, glaciers in Greenland are spewing out more giant icebergs than ever, as the increased warming melts and speeds up the glaciers "calving"-- a term used to describe the breaking off of large massive chunks of ice that become icebergs. As Greenland continues to melt, which it's doing at a speed far faster than any of the computer modeling predicted, the production of icebergs will actually increase. But the melting of Greenland will not only create more icebergs, it will ultimately raise global sea levels. If all the ice on Greenland melted, which it is doing at an alarmingly fast pace, it will raise the level of the planet's seas by more than twenty feet.
This year, 2016, is already on track to become the third year in a row with the highest temperatures in recorded history, which began in 1880. Most disturbing is that the heat distribution is such that the high Arctic is even warmer, causing the ice to melt quicker and the glaciers to spawn more and more icebergs.
A few weeks ago, John Englander, the renowned oceanographer and former CEO for The Cousteau Society and The International SeaKeepers Society, stood on Jacobshavn Glacier with the head of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Paul Zukunft, Senator Angus King (D-ME) Co-Chair of the Arctic Caucus, and leaders from the Joint Arctic Command (Denmark) surveying this collapsing glacier and the huge icebergs that it is spawning. The Jacobshavn Glacier is believed to be the glacier that calved the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912.
As Mr. Englander reported, "I was shocked by what I saw since last visiting Greenland in 2007; the ice sheet has melted far quicker than I could have imagined. And there is a fine gravel powder, which has been pulverized by the grinding ice sheet for thousands of years, carpeting the ice turning it dark gray, further speeding up the melting." (For further information about Greenland.)
Although we need to move quickly to implement renewable energy sources and create other methods to try to slow down the dire consequences of this warming, the immediate need is to begin to create and adopt specific plans to adapt to the inevitable impact that sea level rise will have on our economy and the viability of many of our coastal cities and towns and tourist destinations. To do this, we must understand the facts about sea level rise.
And so it is critically important that the public, the taxpayers, understand the facts and the urgent nature of the adaptation required--and its cost. For example, The US Coast Guard needs several additional icebreakers and other ice-strengthened ships if it is to have the capability to ensure the safety of lives and vessels--like the Crystal Serenity--as well as other missions to monitor the fast-changing conditions and to enforce various laws and regulations for the safety of all.
And it will need to adapt may of its bases to the rise of the seas.
The U.S. Congress and coastal states like Florida, California North Carolina would be prudent to assemble without delay bi-partisan committees staffed by engineers, architects, economists, urban planners, climate scientists et al to identify the local and specific vulnerabilities and the adaptations that will be necessary to keep people safe. The highest priority should include estimating the costs so that funding can be budgeted. Proper adaptation will ultimately require trillions and trillions of dollars.
I am relieved that the Crystal Serenity's passengers and crew are safe. And I urge the media to focus on the facts, not the romance of the Northwest Passage and the Arctic. As icebergs become more numerous and pose a greater danger to ships of all sizes and shapes, there will be no romance in a tragedy that could be avoided if the facts were known.
Peter Emerson's avocation for over four decades has been ocean exploration and ocean policy. He was certified by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) as an aquanaut and has "saturated" in the world's only underwater scientific laboratory, the Aquarius. Peter worked closely with Captain Cousteau and John Englander, with whom he continues to collaborate. President Carter appointed Peter to the National Committee for Oceans and Atmosphere.