Seattle journalist describes impacts of Alaska’s ‘cruise ship invasion’

a cruise ship
The first cruise ship of the 2022 season arrives in Juneau on April 23, 2022. (Photo by Paige Sparks/KTOO)

April brings the start of Alaska’s cruise ship season. Juneau will welcome hundreds of cruise ships in the coming months. In a recent interactive feature for Hakai magazine called “Cruise Ship Invasion,” freelance investigative journalist Andrew Engelson looked at the impact the cruise industry has on the environment and quality of life in Southeast Alaska.

Engelson talked with KTOO’s Anna Canny about his findings.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Anna Canny: You’re based in Seattle. And that’s sort of the hub where a lot of these Alaskan cruise ships set sail. So I’m sure you’re used to just seeing the presence of the industry, but as a reporter, what motivated you to take a deep dive into their environmental impacts?

Andrew Engelson: You can’t help but see those ships here. And I was aware that, you know, there were a lot of impacts, and I’ve seen reporting on it — you know, the carbon impacts, the emissions. And then, you know, these are floating hotels that have up to 4,000 people on them. And so those people are, you know, brushing their teeth and using showers. And so there’s going to be treated sewage, gray water, all the trash that’s generated, and, you know, thousands of tourists basically doubling or tripling the size of the population of small towns when the ships arrive. But I wanted to dig in deeper. And so I spoke to the magazine that published it, Hakai, about how we could approach that. 

AC:  As you mentioned, there’s been a lot of reporting on this over the years, but something that’s really unique about your piece, I think, is the formatting of it. So we follow this one fictional ship — you call it the Oceanic Topaz — and we follow through its stops on its journey through Alaska. I wonder what led you to that approach?

AE:  Yeah, I mean, the findings I had found in this, were really overwhelming. You know, putting it in a traditional article was gonna make it difficult to really kind of cumulatively see those impacts. But if you kind of look at one ship and, seeing the impact of just one ship on its seven day journey, I think was was pretty powerful.

AC: I just want to highlight some of the numbers that you bring up in your reporting: 2,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. And then, of course, you use hot tubs to visualize the wastewater, which I thought was helpful: 400 hot tubs of sewage and 3,000 hot tubs of gray water. And of course, there’s the trash. I think it was eight tons of trash. Those are huge numbers. And that’s all for one ship. And then you start to understand here in Juneau, we’re seeing up to five ships a day.

AE: It’s amazing to think about that there are nearly 300 of them, making that journey. You know, 13 ships, 300 sailings, it’s a lot.

ACHere in Juneau, something that really struck me is that the majority of our marine emissions, I think upwards of 80%, can be linked to the diesel fuel that burns with cruise ships. But I’m wondering if you could contextualize that piece a little bit more for me.

AE: Yes, it was really surprising, because I think a lot of us, we’re always thinking about climate impacts about, you know, whether we drive our car on a trip, or if we take a flight, and you know, where cruises fit into that as well. And, cruises seem to be really high on that level. And that was fairly surprising to see that one seven-day cruise putting out 2,800 metric tons of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to driving 600 cars for a year.

ACThose diesel fuels are really heavy on emissions, but they’re also heavy on another kind of pollution, which I wasn’t super familiar with. It’s the impact of scrubber discharge.

AE: A lot of these ships, for years, used what’s called high-sulfur fuel, and it puts out these particulates. It’s really bad pollution. And so the International Maritime Organization recommended that ships either switch to a low-sulfur fuel, or put in what’s called a scrubber, which basically sprays water through the exhaust, and basically taking that and putting those pollutants into the water, instead of into the air. The problem is, is then it takes those pollutants and puts it out into the sea. That discharge is very acidic, it contributes to ocean acidification. It has, you know, metals and other pollutants in it. And it’s really very unregulated, because it’s relatively new. I mean, most people know about, you know, sewage, and that it should be treated. But this is dumped in both Washington State, British Columbia and Alaska.

AC: It’s clear from a lot of the sources that you interview that there’s definitely concern, like Alaskans are concerned and are noticing these impacts. But there’s a trade-off for a lot of these communities, right? You hear about the economic benefit that the cruise industry brings.

AE: Yeah, it’s a complicated issue. I mean, you know, Seattle actually definitely benefits there’s no question. And certainly the economic benefits to places like Juneau and Ketchikan are high. And maybe the economic benefits are, you know, worth it. But when you kind of total up all of those impacts and the impacts the quality of life, you know, there’s no question. And it was surprising to me that there was a poll of Juneau residents that said, a majority of them were like, yes, we should limit the number of cruise ships.

AC: Well, yeah, I’m sure it will be really interesting for our listeners, because our first cruise ships arrived just over two weeks from now. And you’ve given me lots to think about as I watched them start to come in. So thanks for chatting with me, Andrew.

AE: I really appreciate it.

Previous articleForest Service seeks Alaska workers amid national labor shortage
Next articleNorth Pole’s Patrick Holland gets his new heart