The Hazards of ‘Arctic Shipping’

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As global warming reduces the extent of sea ice in the Arctic, more ships (cargo carriers as well as liners) are plying in the region’s far-northern waters. Experts in maritime safety say that this raises concerns about what will happen when something goes wrong.

Companies, (both cargo and cruise) spend at least three years getting ready for Arctic voyages with priority on preparedness and safety. What keeps experts on edge is the possibility that a ship that is less prepared could have a problem that would require an extensive search-and-rescue operation.

Global Warming Augments Arctic Traffic

Sea ice, which completely covers the Arctic Ocean in winter, gradually melts in the spring and reaches its minimum extent in September. That minimum has declined by about 13 percent per decade compared with the 1981 to 2010 average, according to NASA. Scientists say warming, which is occurring faster in the Arctic than any other region, is largely responsible.

As climate change continues, more of the Arctic will be open to ships, and for longer. Some scientists predict that the region could be completely ice-free in summers by the 2030s or 2040s.

However, good news is that the amount of activity over all in the region is still small, and a huge rush to the Arctic is not expected anytime soon. Even as ice coverage continues to shrink, conditions will remain variable enough that no shipping company with tight deadlines will try regular Arctic service.

Assistance, Search & Rescue

There are relatively few government icebreakers or cutters on the vulnerable circles, and a long-range airlift by helicopters would be extremely difficult. So an emergency operation would most likely rely heavily on other commercial ships that happen to be in the area. A rescue could take days.

Among the problems that might befall ships in the Arctic, much of which is still poorly charted, is a grounding that in the worst case could lead to the breaking up and sinking of a ship.

In addition to the obvious risk to lives, such an event could cause a spill of thousands of gallons of fuel — thick, heavy oil in the case of most cargo ships — that could be next to impossible to recover.

Current Traffic Scenario – Mishaps

Arctic ship traffic has increased in the past decade, and so has the number of accidents, an insurance company reports. The most recent Shipping and Safety Review, published annually by Allianz Global, reports 55 ship accidents in the waters of the Arctic Circle in 2014. That’s up from three in 2005. Mechanical failure, fire or a medical emergency are concerns as well.

Although the Arctic has not been the site of a major disaster involving a cruise ship in recent years, a smaller liner, the Explorer, sank off the Antarctic Peninsula in 2007 after striking an iceberg. Fortunately, several other ships were within 100 miles of the stricken ship, and the 150 passengers and crew were rescued after five hours in lifeboats.

Commercial ships in northern waters have occasionally run into trouble, sometimes with deadly results. In December 2004, the Selendang Ayu, a 740-foot Malaysian ship carrying soybeans and more than 1,000 tons of fuel oil, suffered an engine failure, drifted and eventually ran aground and broke apart in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska. Six crew members died when a Coast Guard helicopter that had just picked them up was swamped by a wave.

According to the report, machinery damage or failure accounted for about half of the incidents. Only one ship accident, off the coast of northern Norway, was considered a total loss.

The Polar Code

While maritime traffic in the region will still be a fraction of overall global traffic, operating in the Arctic poses significant challenges. In 2016, there were 55 reported shipping incidents north of the Arctic Circle.

The IMO Polar Code Advisory identifies four potential Arctic shipping routes: the Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage, Transpolar Sea Route and Arctic Bridge. The rising number of vessels in the region is worrisome due to the increased potential for vessel incidents (such as groundings, mechanical failure, ice damage, fires) and lack of robust response capabilities in the region.

While the entry into force of the Polar Code on January 1, 2017 will hopefully improve standards, it will also require regular updates to keep pace with changes in ice conditions and risk. Safety of maritime traffic in the region demands improved governance, response capabilities and maritime domain awareness.

The Way Ahead

Nations with Arctic lands have a lot to do towards assisting each other in the event of disaster. Even as many ships tread the Arctic throughout the year, there is very little emergency infrastructure in either American or Canadian Arctic waters, or in Russia along what is known as the Northern Sea Route.

Reports say 71 ships navigated some or all of the Northern Sea Routes across Russia in 2013, although increased ice coverage reduced that number in 2014. The report notes the Polar Code, which aims to curb risks from increased traffic in the Arctic and Antarctica, has been welcomed by the shipping industry.

However, while the code addresses many safety issues, questions remain, particularly in the areas of crew training, vessel suitability and potential clean-up. The code will need constant revision.

Sea News Feature, January 31