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Are polar cruises safe? Not all ships are equal.

The sinking of a ship Friday raises safety issues as polar cruise industry booms.

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The sinking of the MS Explorer near Antarctica's King George Island Friday has renewed attention to the potential dangers of operating passenger vessels in remote polar areas.

The ice-reinforced Explorer was a veteran of the polar cruise-ship trade. It had made dozens of voyages to the Arctic and Antarctic since 1969, safely transporting thousands of tourists to see penguins and polar bears, glaciers and icebergs, though the ship was evacuated at least twice after Antarctic groundings.

But experts note that the crews of such ships must deal with floating ice, unpredictable weather, and substandard nautical charts – all of which can create life-threatening situations.

"These are warning signals," says Jim Barnes, executive director of Washington-based Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. "You add up the incidents and I think it's clear that standards need to be strengthened to reduce risks to human safety and the environment."

Cruise-ship tourism has boomed in both polar regions. The number of cruise-ship passengers in Greenland has more than doubled since 2003, while Svalbard, in the Norwegian Arctic has seen steady growth. In the 1980s, Antarctica often saw fewer than 1,000 tourists per year; this past season, cruise ships brought 37,552.

This year saw several serious incidents. In January, 294 passengers on the Nordkapp had to be evacuated after the 11,000-ton ship struck a rock at Deception Island, Antarctica. In August, 23 tourists were injured – two seriously – when a piece of glacier fell into the sea, throwing a wave of ice and water onto the deck of the Alexey Maryshev in a Svalbard fjord.

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