For centuries, ambitious mariners pining to traverse the Arctic Circle experienced little more than disappointment — and often death.
But diminishing sea ice and more temperate weather have made traveling through polar waters a vacation rather than an exploration.
The area covered by Arctic sea ice in December was 420,900 square miles smaller than the 1981-2010 average, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. That represents an area more than one and a half times the size of Texas — and was the second-lowest level recorded by satellite since 1979.
Nordic countries and Greenland have led the Arctic tourism charge.
In 1990, only 7,952 cruise passengers passed through Iceland. By 2016, a quarter of a million were visiting the country yearly. The Russian Arctic also saw a 20 percent rise in visitors last year, with Chinese tourists accounting for the largest group.
But experts warn that the increasing traffic raises the chance of a catastrophe such as an oil spill or a sewage leak that would damage the pristine polar environment.
“It is a matter of time, not a matter of if,” said Jackie Dawson, an associate professor of geography, environment and geomatics at the University of Ottawa. “We will see some sort of disaster related to climate change and increased human activity in the Arctic.”
The Arctic is prone to severe and changing weather conditions that complicate travel and endanger seafarers. The high latitude also disrupts maritime navigational and communication systems. Should an oil spill, a crash or a machinery malfunction occur, the region’s remoteness makes an efficient emergency response nearly impossible.
The Northwest Passage — a route through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago that is 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle and connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific — was first crossed by sea in 1906.