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When something is supposed to go away, but perceived to be valuable, you want to see it before it is gone. Sea-ice or glaciers are said to be endangered. The cause of the danger now gets enhanced by the thread of the last chance. A down-winding spiral? Read more on the paradox of last chance tourism.



The Crux of the Last Chance

The so-called Last Chance Tourism is growing. In case you never heard that term, it refers to vacation cruises to destinations that may supposedly be gone in the future. Favorite destinations of such cruises are Antarctica, Glacier Bay or Tracy Arm in Alaska. Most recently, the sailing of the Crystal Infinity made news with her sailing the Northwest Passage from Anchorage to New York. This year, they redo the tour at the price of a small car. See the post at the link for what to pack for a cruise.

Of course, these type of Arctic cruises are for the very rich only or a way for Jane Doe to spend her savings of a lifetime in one shot. It’s about Alaska, its environment and expensive electricity generation in Alaska.


cruise ship in Glacier Bay with visible smoke
Cruise ship in Glacier Bay. Ship are at beth for about 9 hours for glacier and wildlife viewing. The high relative humidity leads to swelling of particles emitted by the ship and become visible as haze underneath the inversion layer. Photo from Piralla, Gende, Mölders 2014.



Tourism Is a Big Part of Alaska’s Economics

Cruise ship tourism including last chance tourism is a major economy for Alaska. This industry is well aware that they need the pristine landscape to sell their cruises. They are also aware that a cruise ship is basically the equivalent of a town of 2000 to 5000 people, but on the water. Of course, this town needs power even when the ship is a berth for glacier viewing, wildlife viewing or just for letting the passengers dressed for sightseeing explore the town at the port of call.

Alaska’s economy suffered strongly from COVID19 related lock-downs. Consequently, many people have to survive financial burdens related to COVID19 as well.


Screenshot of ships in Alaska's waters in October 2015
Screenshot of ships in Alaska’s waters in October 2015. Live Ships Map – AIS – Vessel Traffic and Positions – AIS Marine



Humidity Makes Tiny Particles Visible as Haze

In fjords, inversions form frequently. This means that temperature increases with height instead of decreasing with height (More on inversions). Under inversion conditions, no or close to no vertical mixing of the air occurs. Consequently, any emissions of pollutants into an inversion layer remain there. Over time, they accumulate. In the moist climate of the Alaska Southeast or Aleutian Chain, ugly haze forms on water soluble particles.


last chance Glacier cruise ship at beth in front of a glacier
Cruise ship sailing the mid bay of Glacier Bay National Park as part of the last chance tourism. Here again relative humidity is high for which emitted particle become visible as haze. However, the atmospheric conditions are less stagnant and permit vertical mixing and exchange with air aloft. Thus, the plume thins out with time. The air seems dizzy. At the top, are some clouds due to high relative humidity. Photo from: Pirhalla, Gende, Mölders, 2014.



Natural Sources for Airborne Particles

A remote place like Antarctica or Alaska is not a guarantee for pristine air. Of course, particles also occur naturally. Particles form, for instance, by evaporation of water form sea-spray or are emitted by volcanoes. Dust uptake by wind is another natural source for airborne particles.

When you live in Europe, just think of the red rain. The red color is from tiny Sahara sand particles. Sahara dust often also reaches the southern East Coast of the US. In Alaska, you often see brown dust layers in March. They stem from dust taken up in the Gobi Desert.

Particles can also form naturally from precursor gases like sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ammonia and alike by so-called gas-to-particle conversion. A process similar to the phase transition from water vapor to ice or droplets. Even in the pristine atmosphere, traces of these gases exist from volcanic emissions, biogenic processes in the soil, and animals. Other natural particle sources are wildfires.


Particles from Ship Emissions

Particles, some of which are black carbon, are emitted by any combustion process. However, when a cruise ship sails somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the fjords and/or between the Islands of the Alexander Archipelago, for instance, this ship may be the only anthropogenic emissions source in a radius of 50 miles or so. It is even more extreme in the Northwest Passage. Under inversion conditions on days with high relative humidity, the exhaust plume may not only become visible to the passengers of the cruise ship, but may stay there for hours even when the ship is already miles away. Consequently, when the next cruise ship sails the area, the tourists see “unexpected pollution.”


The Tourism Paradigm of Last Chance Tourism

Since the cruise ship tourism industry knows that any pollution even their own is adverse to their business, they use scrubbers, low sulfur fuel and other high technical means to keep emissions low. These efforts of cause also help to protect the ecosystems along their cruise lanes. This means it also helps the wildlife which also make part of their business.


Power Generation on Board

Let’s come back to the point that a cruise ship has to produce the power on board even at berth. When an engine is not at optimal load its emissions are higher than otherwise. Consequently, when the auxiliary engines produce power at berth, the ship is maneuvering or the ship is cruising at its maximum speed, its emissions are among the highest. This means that when producing power at berth in a city, the ship emissions are high. In moist climate like the fjords of Southeast Alaska, the likelihood that the emissions become visible haze is high too.


Cold Ironing to Reduce Emissions

Tourists like to take photos of them in front of their cruise ship – even if it is just a river cruise – and post them on social media. The haze would not be a promotional bell ringer for the tourism industry. The solution to the problem of haze production at berth is cold ironing. Here I am not talking about the iron used to get wrinkles out of clothes even though that would be expected on a fashion and style blog. 😉



Explanation of Cold Ironing

Cold ironing means that the cruise ships plug into facilities to get electricity from shore. Of course, this power has to be produced somewhere and there will be emissions involved with it. However, power plants are much more efficient in their energy production, and have better possibilities to keep emissions at bay than the possibilities available on board of a ship. Furthermore, in Southeast Alaska, a huge amount of electricity stems from hydro-power generation.


Cruise ships "Parked in Juneau" by Kevin H.
Cruise ships “Parked in Juneau” by Kevin H. is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0



Special Equipment Is Needed for Cold Ironing

Cold ironing requires special equipment of the ships. Think of it like when the special equipment one needs when one wants to power the house with a generator in case of an outage. Like not every house has the possibility to switch between power from a generator and that from the electricity company, not all cruise ships are equipped for cold ironing. Actually, in Juneau, the cold ironing facility was built by and belongs to a cruise company, Princess. More than 90% of their cruise ships cold iron when at berth in Juneau. Note that in many ports on the US West Coast, cold ironing facilities are part of the port to keep the ship emissions and hence pollution due to the port low in those port cities.


What Can Be Done to Reduce the Impacts of Last Chance Tourism?

Cold ironing is a start to reduce air pollution in Alaska’s port cities. It’s a step in the right direction. It outsources the emission to another place where better filtering/clearing can be done.

A North America wide Emission Control Area (ECA) was established. An ECA is a 200 miles wide protected zone off the coast lines. Herein ships have to confer with stringent international emission standards set be the International Marine Organization (IMO). These emission standards involve to use special low sulfur fuel and a reduction of the nitrogen monoxide and nitrogen dioxide emission by 80% of the prior to 2010 standards. Recently, the IMO has tightened the requirements again to protect the Arctic.


Why Arctic Shipping Might Increase

Unfortunately, this ECA only encompasses the southern Alaska coast of the Gulf of Alaska. The Bering Sea coast and the Alaska and Canadian coasts of the Arctic Ocean are not included. However, according to the Arctic Council, ship traffic thru the Bering Strait has increased notably in recent years due to the decline of sea-ice.

Experts predict that ship traffic in the Arctic will increase in the future. Major reasons are the shorter routes, the pirates off the east coast of Africa and the upcoming renovation of the Panama Chanel. Shorter sea-routes mean less time on sea, i.e. lower transportation costs, lower emissions (unless ice breaking is needed), less salary to pay, more transport with the same ship, less fuel burned to get merchandise from A to B.

The recent grounding of the ship in the Suez Chanel has drawn the attention again to the much shorter route from Japan to Europe via the North East Passage. Note that Russia requires shippers to get a permit sailing the route. In Canada, the cost for ice-breakers is currently paid by the tax payers.


What You Can Do to Breath Better Air

It is important to understand that these ship emissions are currently like a point source in pristine air. Outside the plume and on board of the ship, the particle concentration is most likely much lower than the particle concentrations in the air you breathe indoors at home.

What do you think about last chance tourism, Arctic and ship cruises? Is it just in fashion or an environmental concern? What about a short vacation trip like a surfer flying to Hawaii for great waves or a fashionista/fashionister going to Paris Fashion Week once a year?




Mölders, N., S.E. Porter, C.F. Cahill, G.A. Grell, 2010, Influence of ship emissions on air quality and input of contaminants in southern Alaska National Parks and Wilderness Areas during the 2006 tourist season, Atmospheric Environment, 44, 1400-1413

Pirhalla, M., S. Gende, N. Mölders, 2014, Fate of Particulate Matter from Cruise-Ship Emissions in Glacier Bay during the 2008 Tourist Season, Journal of Environmental Protection

Mölders, N., S. Gende, 2016, Impacts of Cruise-Ship Entry Quotas on Visibility and Air Quality in Glacier Bay, Journal of Environmental Protection, 6, 1236


Featured photo by Howard Herdi on

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