arctic sea ice nasaOn Tuesday August 16th, an estimated 1,700 passengers and crew set sail from Alaska on a luxury cruise ship to take part in a journey across the Northwest Passage bound for New York. It is the first time that such a large luxury cruise ship is sailing through the maritime route at the northern end of North America.

After leaving the harbour in Seward, Alaska, the Crystal Serenity cruise ship will cross the Bering Strait and head North to the Beaufort Sea, and from there follow the Northwest Passage east through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. It will then make its way to Greenland before heading to New York, where it is scheduled to arrive on September 17th.

The journey of the cruise ship has caused controversy, as the retreat of Arctic sea ice in recent years has made the journey of the large (250 metre-long), commercial cruise ship through the Northwest Passage possible - at least for a few weeks out of the year. And while a number of commercial vessels have already sailed through the Northwest Passage in summer, the fact that a large commercial luxury cruise ship is making the journey is seen as a key turning point.

The journey has also raised a number of safety concerns. The maritime route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is known to have some of the oldest and thickest sea ice in the Arctic, and search and rescue capabilities are small. There are only a handful of communities with limited capabilities along the passage. Michael Byers, Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia, raised his concerns in a interview with CBC News.“”If the entire ship – all 1,000 passengers, all 600 crew – require search and rescue, for instance, if the ship sinks, then that would actually break the Canadian search-and-rescue system," he stated. A rescue operation in the Northwest Passage in Canadian waters “would likely take days and require military planes to be dispatched from across the country,” according to CBC News. Former Vice Admiral of the US Coast Guard Roger Rufe told the Washington Post that “the area is plagued by a lack of adequate nautical charts, virtually no navigation aids, poor communication systems, and a lack of infrastructure.”

In light of the risk, Crystal Crusies, the company operating the luxury cruise liner, has been working with the U.S. and Canadian governments and Coast Guards to plan for any potential emergencies that might happen. An icebreaker and two helicopters will accompany the ship along its journey, and the journey is taking place during a time of the year when sea ice concentrations along the Northwest Passage are at a minimum.

Tickets for the historic cruise - which ranged from $22,000 to more than $120,000 (US) - were quickly sold. Even before the first journey has been completed, Crystal Cruises is rumoured to be planning a second cruise.

A webcam on the bridge of the ship will be broadcasting live images during the journey.