One hundred years ago, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen bravely traversed the mysterious, ice-filled Northwest Passage on a modest, 45-ton fishing vessel with six men.
The first expedition ever to make it through the treacherous passage, it was an effort that took three years and involved spending two winters in Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada, learning about Arctic survival skills from the Inuit.
This August, a dramatically different expedition will take place along the legendary sea route located 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and in so doing, will illustrate just how much the planet has changed over the past century.
Crystal Cruises, one of the world's most extravagant luxury cruise lines, will embark upon a sold-out voyage with 1,700 passengers and crew on the 68,870-ton, 14-deck Crystal Serenity. It will be the biggest, most opulent vessel to travel the Northwest Passage to date.
The journey along such a famed route is now possible because of ice shrinkage tied to global warming.
Until about 2009, Arctic ice pack prevented regular marine shipping for most of the year. Since 1979, however, winter Arctic ice has decreased at about 3% to 4% per decade, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. And in more recent years, satellite data have revealed an even more dramatic reduction in ice cover, according to a November 2015 report posted by NSIDC.
In 2012 for example, the Arctic sea ice September minimum reached a new record low of 3.41 million square kilometers - 44% below the 1981 through 2010 average and 16% below the previous record in 2007.
At the same time, satellite records dating back to 1979, and even earlier, show spring melting is consistently starting earlier and lasting for a longer portion of the year.
"The fact that such a cruise is even being considered is a reflection of the low amounts of sea ice year after year," said Julienne Stroeve, a research scientist with NSIDC who studies atmosphere-sea ice interactions, sea ice predictability, climate change and associated impacts. "We've seen this accelerated rate of ice loss and have a bad feeling about this year. We may have a record low this year. We're starting out winter with the lowest amount of winter ice we've seen."
Stroeve, who has given keynote addresses around the world on Arctic climate issues, briefed former Vice President Al Gore and congressional staff, and been named one of the most influential scientific minds by Thomson Reuters two years in a row, says the Arctic is changing rapidly.
Record breaking ice melt has brought shipping traffic to the region in a way that was previously unthinkable on a route that captured the imagination of several of the world's famed explorers, (many of whom met with failure or disaster when trying to conquer it themselves).
In 2012, a record 30 vessels transited the Northwest Passage. And in 2013, for the first time, a large bulk carrier made the journey, according to Canada's Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
The number of ships passing through the region has increased from about four per year in the 1980s to 20 to 30 as of 2013. Still, that traffic has mostly been icebreakers on research duties, small vessels, adventurers, or tug and supply boats and barges. There's also the occasional oil tanker or drill ship.
Crystal Serenity will, in many ways, be the in a league of its own when it makes the voyage.
"Other cruises have done it, but they fall along the lines of expedition vessels," says Paul Garcia, Crystal's director of global public relations. "We're the first to offer a true luxury experience, in terms of the onboard experience and everything we plan to deliver. It will be a truly unique experience in terms of onboard enrichment and excursions we have planned, but still has an expedition feel."
The luxurious ship recently underwent a multi-phase redesign that ultimately totaled $52 million. Its chic, contemporary styling, described as Hollywood glamour meets Fifth Avenue elegance, includes new Crystal Penthouses, renovated restaurants and many new design details including an herb garden on the lido deck, where one can wander through the olive trees and fresh lavender.
All of which is a far cry from the spare, if not downright brutal, onboard life experienced by Amundsen and his crew.
There will also be a variety of shore excursions along the Crystal Serenity route and volunteer opportunities at some of the small towns and communities the ship's passengers visit.
The cost to take part in the cruise starts at around $21,000 per person and goes as high as $120,000 depending on the accommodations.
For those wondering about the safety and other implications of such a journey, Garcia points out the company has done its homework and made extensive preparations for the passage.
The Serenity will sail with an icebreaking escort vessel carrying two helicopters along its entire route.
In addition, a full expedition team, experienced in the Northwest Passage, will be on board to advise and work with the Serenity's captain along the transit. The ship's bridge team for the voyage, meanwhile, will include additional officers and team members who've received enhanced education focused specifically on polar and ice navigation.
Serenity will also be outfitted with two ice searchlights, a high-resolution radar and other equipment that will allow for scanning the waters ahead in search of underwater obstructions or uncharted rocks.
"Research shows that the time we are going, the ice is at its most minimal level - during August and September - so I don't know if we're making any historic maneuvers here," continued Garcia. "Other cruises have done it. It's just the number of guests going is probably more than in the past."
Crystal's decision to offer the journey meanwhile, is something Garcia says was driven in large part by customer demand. The cruise line's well-traveled guests were seeking something new and exciting.
Sherri Eisenberg, editorial director for ShermansCruise, is not at all surprised Crystal is leading the way when it comes to embarking on the adventurous voyage. She described Crystal as an intriguing cruise line that has been going through many changes in recent years under the direction of its new CEO and president Edie Rodriguez. Since Rodriguez took over, the cruise line has been increasingly innovative in its efforts to give travelers new experiences, a brand expansion that has included launching Crystal Luxury Air, river cruises and expeditions.
"She has been very creative in trying to give people new experiences," Eisenberg notes. "Each time Crystal makes an announcement, I'm surprised. They're a really good brand, that really delivers what they say they're going to deliver. And the idea of having serious luxury in these kinds of locations is really appealing."
The opportunity to experience the Northwest Passage is particularly attractive to older travelers, those who have seen and done it all, she adds.
"I think a lot of baby boomers are looking at their bucket lists and seeing what they haven't done yet - the Antarctic, the Galapagos, the Northwest Passage," says Eisenberg. "Once they've accomplished a lot of it, they want to see the things they haven't yet."
In terms of what the journey says about the state of the planet, that's another matter.
Scientists expect the Arctic will be almost entirely ice free in the summer within 25 years - thus creating the possibility for year-round shipping.
It's a prospect with ramifications that have yet to be fully understood or addressed, both in the short term and long term.
"I think it's a little early for these types of trips, but there are some people for whom their reason to go is that they can and because no one has ever done it," says Tim Barnett, an emeritus research marine geophysicist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who has been a leader in efforts to improve understanding of climate through computer models and advanced statistical methods. "If it were ten years from now, I wouldn't be so concerned; it will have warmed up enough."
The Canadian Ice Service, meanwhile, warns that a rapid increase in shipping in the Northwest Passage should be approached with caution, noting that predictions of an ice-free Arctic may lead many to a false sense of optimism about the ease of shipping the route. The government agency points out that sea ice remains unpredictable and there still may be summers marked by very heavy ice conditions.
Even in the relatively ice-free late summer, the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea remain difficult to navigate with their unmarked shallow areas, shifting sand-gravel bars, fog, and dangerous weather.
Increased shipping in the region, the Canadian agency concludes, would require a high level of preparation for environmental incidents.
It's a sentiment shared by Stroeve, the research scientist with NSIDC, and other environmental experts.
"I obviously understand people want to see it," she says. "If you are on a ship there, you're likely to see polar bears and other species. But I'm not sure the U.S. is prepared if there was a disaster...We're not set up for rescue operations in the Arctic, if something were to happen."