More ships in Arctic raises risk and fears of disaster

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When the Crystal Serenity, a 1,000-passenger luxury liner, sails in August on a month-long Arctic cruise through the Northwest Passage, it will have a far more utilitarian escort: a British supply ship.

The Ernest Shackleton, which normally resupplies scientific bases in Antarctica, will help with the logistics of shore excursions along the route from Alaska to New York through Canada’s Arctic archipelago.

But the escort ship will also be there should the Serenity become stuck in ice or something else goes wrong. The Shackleton can manoeuvre through ice and will be carrying emergency water and rations for the liner’s passengers and 600 crew members, oil spill containment gear and a couple of helicopters.

As global warming reduces the extent of sea ice in the Arctic, more ships — cargo carriers as well as liners like the Serenity taking tourists to see the region’s natural beauty — will be plying far northern waters. Experts in maritime safety say that raises concerns about what will happen when something inevitably goes wrong.

“It’s what keeps us up at night,” said Amy A. Merten, who works on maritime response issues at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Although nations with Arctic lands, including the United States, have agreed to assist each other in the event of disaster, there is very little emergency infrastructure in either U.S. or Canadian Arctic waters, or in Russia along what is known as the Northern Sea Route.

There are relatively few government icebreakers or cutters in the region, 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.

“There’s just no infrastructure for response,” Merten said. “Things could be OK. But it would be a difficult situation.”

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.

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 per cent 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.

But the amount of activity overall 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.

“It only takes a little bit of ice to ruin your day,” said Timothy Keane, senior manager for Arctic operations for Fednav, a bulk shipping operator based in Montreal. “So if ice is in a particular area that you need to go, you’re still blocked from getting there.”

But in September, Russia will start shipping liquefied natural gas to Europe and Asia from Siberia, using ice-strengthened 1,000-foot tankers that, by turning around and moving stern-first, can churn through ice up to two metres thick.

And while the Crystal Serenity, with its casino and other amenities, was not built with polar cruising in mind, more than two dozen smaller “expedition” class ships, designed to carry up to 200 passengers and handle moderate ice conditions, are under construction around the world.

“You need investment and you need infrastructure to cover this gap,” said Lawson W. Brigham, a former captain of U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers and now on the faculty at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Even relatively simple monitoring of ships can reduce the potential for disaster. Ed Page, a former Coast Guard captain, runs a private-public partnership, Marine Exchange of Alaska, that uses a network of radio receivers to watch over ships around Alaska. Exchange operators can contact vessels that are getting too close to shore — a ship should usually be far from land so that in the event of a mechanical problem there is time for repairs without running aground — and have them change course.

Page acknowledged that if something went disastrously wrong with a ship within the 3.9 million square kilometres of ocean his network covers, “it would be ugly.”

“But we should stop worrying about what we’re going to do when things go wrong,” he said. “We should prevent things from going wrong.”