It’s not just sea ice and rough seas that threaten the safety of passenger cruise ships in the Arctic. (AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz)

In August, the 820-foot cruise ship Crystal Serenity will cast off its lines in Seward, Alaska, head for the Bering Sea and steam north. From there it will make a hard right turn, sailing through the Arctic Ocean north of Canada, down through Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea in the North Atlantic. Thirty-two days after leaving port, it will dock in New York City.

If the voyage is successful, it will be the first time a cruise ship has made the trek through the Northwest Passage, and 1,000 passengers will be along for the ride.

Ice is the obvious hazard on this journey. Over the past decade, the Earth has warmed so much that new lows in Arctic sea ice have been reached, and summertime sailing — especially just north of Canada — is mostly ice-free. This has led shipping and oil companies to become much more willing to pursue endeavors in the Arctic Circle.

The ship will be modified to carry sonar, ice-detection radar, ice searchlights and thermal imaging, Crystal Cruises said in a news release. Its navigation system will include near-real time sea ice imagery from satellite as well as ice forecasts.

The Serenity will also have a partner ship along for the journey that “will carry two helicopters for real-time ice reconnaissance, emergency support and flightseeing activities.”

An earlier attempt to sail these waters didn’t end well. The MV Clipper Adventurer ran aground off Kugluktuk, Nunavut, in August 2010, and it took two days for the Canadian Coast Guard’s icebreaker Amundsen to reach the ship to offer assistance. Fortunately, no casualties occurred in that accident. An uncharted rock was said to be the culprit.

But there is another, hidden risk to which this cruise — and similar cruises that follow — will be exposed: space weather.


The planned route of the Crystal Serenity’s first voyage through the Northwest Passage. (Crystal Cruises)

“Space weather” refers to huge eruptions of radiation and plasma from the surface of the sun. The eruptions can cause geomagnetic storms here on Earth that spark brilliant auroras near the poles, but they can affect or even bring down the electrical grid, radio communications, GPS and other satellite services. The storms can last days to weeks, depending on its strength. And to make matters even more precarious, space weather forecasting is about as mature in 2016 as weather forecasting was in 1930.

So as the Serenity journeys through the Arctic on a route that no other cruise ship has yet succeeded in sailing, a strong geomagnetic storm could bring down its GPS and communication with the rest of the world. High wind, heavy seas and, most menacingly, sea ice could necessitate a rescue, and communications and positioning are necessities in bringing emergency responders.

This is but one example of introducing shipping in the Arctic. Studies have shown big economies if a tanker were to go from Europe to Japan via the Arctic, rather than the traditional trip through the Suez Canal or around the Horn of Africa. And already, vessels resupply oil and gas industry operations at Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay by sailing the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

Sailing at the right time can be critical, and the challenges can be substantial. The need for better, more useful space weather forecasts has never been greater.

More space weather:

Why is the aurora so colorful? It’s a collision where space meets Earth

The two most interesting space weather events of 2015

This is still the hardest space weather problem, and it’s a huge threat to our infrastructure