Troubled waters ahead

Weekly cover | Are images of ice-bound ships off Antarctica a picture of things to come in the North?

There is promise ahead for the industry, but it could leave trouble in its wake

Lesley Price

As the drama over Russian research vesel Akademik Shokalskiy began to unfold last month, trapping the ship’s 52 passengers and 22 crew members in Antarctic ice, many began to ask whether a similar incident could occur in the Arctic.

The verdict is that with the increasing number of vessels sailing in the relatively unexplored territory of the Arctic, a stranded ship is not an unlikely scenario.

Ole Kristian Bjerkemo, chair of the Arctic Council Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response Working Group (EPPR), said although information about ocean ice in the Arctic from last year indicates that it continues to thin, it still poses a risk. New shipping routes and unexplored territory, he warned, could potentially cause problems for vessels.

“Considering the factors, it might be possible in some situation that a vessel could become immoveable,” he said.

Polar regions have proven to be highly dangerous due to the their remoteness and unpredictable nature, according to Mr Bjerkemo. Shipping accidents have occured and may continue to do so with opening trade routes, but Mr Bjerkemo said it was hard to predict whether Arctic vessels would get stuck.

“Whether a vessel could become immoveable in the Arctic will depend on the vessel, the skills of the crew and other factors,” he said.

Calling for aid
Rescue and recovery efforts in the Arctic have generally run smoothly. However, considering recent territorial claims, it has become increasingly uncertain which coastal state would need to come to the aid of a shipping accident or stranded vessel.

Under the 2011 Search and Rescue Agreement each Arctic state has its own designated territory to cover, and coastal states regularly hold joint exercises as a way to prepare for a potential accident. But given the increasing air and surface traffic in the region, the International Maritime Organisation has issued its own guidelines for voyage planning for passenger ships operating in remote areas such as the Arctic.

SEE RELATED: SAREX commander steering rescue crews towards disaster

Natasha Brown, an IMO spokesperson, said the guidelines were developed in response to the growing popularity of ocean travel for passengers in the Arctic.

“When developing a plan for voyages to remote areas, special consideration should be given to the environmental nature of the area of operation, the limited resources, and navigational information,” she said.

Brown also explained that the IMO is currently drafting the Polar Code, which aims to address potential issues and aid the prevention of accidents, “ensuring ships trading in polar waters have capability to survive after an incident and that life-saving appliances and arrangements are adequate in the event of an incident”.

So far, any shipping accidents in the Arctic have most have caused limited damage. However, Mr Bjerkemo said that when they do happen, the the impact could be significant.

“A vessel stranded without an oil spill will have limited effects, but will be a visual ‘pollution’. An oil spill could lead to serious environmental damage, but this will depend on many factors, including the time of the year, type of oil, amount of oil and the vulnerability in the area.”

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published with the permission of the author.

The Weekly Cover is The Rasmussen’s main story of the week. These articles will sometimes look ahead at one of the more important or interesting topics of the coming week, or they may provide insight and analysis about a current issue.

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