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There is a rush of people heading for the Arctic on expedition cruises, intent on seeing the glaciers before they melt.  But experts are warning the melted sea ice is ‘more dangerous than you think.’

The vast Canadian Arctic has fewer than 10 per cent of the waters charted, but more ships are braving the territory as rising temperatures thaw passageways.

Cruise ships touring the Arctic have doubled since 2012, and in June to August next year, 26 expedition ships are offering voyages to the northern and eastern icy waters of Svalbard in Norway.

“Most people don’t realise just how dangerous it is,” Michael Byers, a research chair at the University of British Columbia and an expert on Arctic politics told website Quartz.

“It’s very remote. There’s no coastal infrastructure, so no ports of refuge. There’s extreme weather. The maritime maps are quite poor. Even the fact that there’s less sea ice poses a threat: It means there’s more sections of broken-off ice in the ocean, which is always on the move.”

Small pieces of glacier called “growlers” also pose a particular threat. They’re the same density as concrete. They can punch a hole in a ship if they’re struck, says Michael Byers.

The melted ice also reveals uncharted underwater rocks which poses an ever-present danger. In August 2010, Clipper Adventurer ran aground on a rock no one knew was there. And more recently in 2018, Akademik loffe who was carrying tourists and researchers was grounded off the coast of Nunavut.

The 162 passengers and crew aboard were rescued in an operation that cost the Canadian armed forces half a million dollars and the cost to the Canadian Coast Guard remains undisclosed.

But luxury expedition line Ponant says that their ships are well prepared for Arctic waters.

“In the Polar Regions, the ships’ positions are monitored in real time. The Captain is assisted by an officer specially trained to navigate in ice-covered waters and crews are trained in how to behave and survive in Polar waters,” says the line.

“All the sister ships have reinforced hulls and a structure certified by Bureau Veritas as well as 1C ice classification, allowing them to sail in the Polar Regions. Safety equipment is designed to withstand extreme conditions while waiting for help to arrive in the event of an emergency or problem.”

The Le Boréal, L’Austral, Le Soléal and Le Lyrial are also equipped with Farsounder Sonar providing 3D vision of the sea bed at different depths.

The line also uses an ice navigation simulator to train young officers in the organisation of the Bridge, and how to navigate in polar environments, amidst the drifting ice and in extreme weather conditions (snow storms, heavy seas, etc.).

The simulator, inaugurated by PONANT and the ENSM (Ecole Nationale Supérieure Maritime) naval academy in 2013, is the only one in France and is developed using data provided by the company’s ships and officers who are experienced in this type of navigation.

With the increasing number of ships sailing the Arctic, coast guards in the region are finding that they have to beef up their search and rescue capacity.

“Sometimes it can take us a couple of days to find the people,” Neil O’Rourke, a senior official in the Canadian Coast Guard told Quartz. “Even with air craft, good weather conditions, and ships, it can take a few days. You’re in such a huge area.”

Canada recently changed its maritime laws to stipulate that vessels carrying 12 people or more must have automatic identification systems on board, which use transponders to alert the coast guard to their location.

“Expedition ships sailing into these waters must bring their own survival gear sufficient to keep passengers and crew alive until rescue arrives,” Bent-Ove Jamtli, Director of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre of North Norway told website The Barents Observer.

The International Maritime Organization’s Polar Code that came into effect in 2017, says that ships sailing in the Arctic are required to be self sufficient for at least five days.