Envisioning Disasters and Framing Solutions in the Arctic

(from AMSA Report 2009)


A key AMSA workshop, Opening the Arctic Seas: Envisioning Disasters and Framing Solutions, was held in March 2008 at the Coastal Response Research Center of the University of New Hampshire. The center, a partnership between the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and UNH, develops new approaches to spill response and restoration through research and synthesis of information.

In cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Arctic Research Commission, the center hosted the workshop to identify key strategies, action items and resource needs for preparedness and response to potential Arctic marine incidents. The 50 workshop participants represented a spectrum of constituencies and expertise including government agencies, the marine industry, Arctic indigenous groups, academia and non-governmental organizations. Experts from the U.S., Denmark, Canada, Russian Federation, Norway and Finland and one non-Arctic state, South Africa, participated.

The workshop focused on the qualitative risk factors for five plausible Arctic marine incidents developed by the organizing committee and bear some similarities with incidents that have already occurred in polar waters. The incidents were designed to explore: spill response; search and rescue; firefighting and salvage; communications; governance and jurisdiction; and legal issues. The five incidents were:

• Cruise ship grounding in the west coast of Greenland Mid-September grounding in a fjord of a cruise ship with 1,400 passengers. Progressive flooding makes the ship unstable and all passengers and crew must abandon ship.

• Bulk carrier trapped in ice in the central Arctic Ocean September/late season crossing of the Arctic Ocean en route to the Bering Strait and the Pacific Ocean. Ice damages the ships’ rudder and propeller. The ship’s non-ice strengthened hull makes wintering impossible. Rescue operations are challenging due to the remote location and changing sea ice cover.

• Fire and collision in offshore operations in the Beaufort Sea In late winter, a drill ship, two oil spill response vessels and one ice management icebreaker are conducting exploratory drilling operations in 50 meters of water 20 nautical miles offshore within the disputed U.S.-Canada border area in the Beaufort Sea. An engine room fire on the icebreaker causes it to lose control and collide with the drill ship, rupturing a ballast tank. The drill ship empties 700 barrels of Arctic grade diesel fuel to maintain stability; 300 barrels of diesel fuel are also spilled because of the fire on the ice management ship. Crew members on both vessels suffer injuries.

• Oil tanker and fishing vessel collision in the Barents Sea The collision occurs in near-zero visibility within the disputed Russia-Norway border in the Barents Sea. The tanker releases 25,000 barrels of crude oil in the water and must be towed to a place of refuge to avoid potentially spilling its remaining cargo. The fishing vessel sinks making salvage impractical.

• Tug and barge grounding on St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea In May in broken ice conditions, a tug loses power while towing a barge laden with mining explosives and other containerized cargo for several Arctic communities. Pushed by a storm surge, the tug and barge are grounded in an area that was a critical habitat for threatened and endangered species and a haul-out location for Pacific walrus. The tug and barge are separated by several miles, the tug ruptures a fuel tank, containers are in the water and some wash onshore.

Workshop participants were divided into five groups each working on a single, plausible incident. Four questions were addressed by each group: If this incident happened today in the Arctic, how would we respond? How would we prefer to respond? What are the gaps and needs that exist today that prevent us from responding in the preferred manner? What do we need to do to address those needs and fill the gaps?

The exercise yielded the following themes:

(A) Ports and Waterways Management

• Designate potential places of refuge in the Arctic and develop guidelines for their use; an international effort should also rank them by seasonal environmental conditions.

• Establish policies and systems to control ship movements such as route planning; use of Automatic Identification Systems on all Arctic ships; vessel tracking systems and designation as Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas from IMO.

(B) Vessels and Crew Safety

• Institute mandatory safety regulations for Arctic operations; the current IMO Guidelines for Ships Operating in Arctic Ice-Covered Waters address specific construction, fire safety, lifesaving, navigational, operational and crew training issues, but they are voluntary; mandatory training for ice navigation and emergency response in polar environments is necessary; a non-binding regulatory framework seems inconsistent with the hazards of Arctic navigation and the potential for environmental damage in the Arctic Ocean.

(C) Response Agreements and Plans

• Existing search and rescue and pollution contingency plans do not provide enough detailed information to facilitate an effective response; there is a need for Arctic-wide agreements for SAR and pollution response; agreements and response plans should designate which nations respond in specific areas and clarify operations in disputed regions; agreements and response plans should also ensure foreign responders can participate in operations unimpeded by customs and immigration issues; Arctic states could establish an integrated response management center to manage the execution of agreements and facilitate the decision-making process.

(D) Strategies to Improve Prevention and Preparedness

• Conduct comprehensive environmental risk assessments and impact assessments to assist in decision-making, route planning, emergency response, etc.

• Increase emergency response assets, equipment and supplies in the Arctic, placing emphasis on regions of active development; self-sustaining, forward-operating response bases should be established.

• Improve knowledge for Arctic incident response through training and engagement of the local community, responders and the maritime industry; Arctic indigenous people should be trained in response and local communities must participate in response operations.

(E) Strategies to Improve Response

• Consider alternative countermeasures for oil spill cleanup; mechanical measures in ice-covered waters may be impractical and alternative response options should be considered (dispersants, chemical herders, sinking agents, in-situ burning, etc.).

• Expand communications capabilities throughout the Arctic; expanded shore based (VHF and HF) and satellite systems are required.

• Improve logistical support capabilities for responders; support for response personnel in remote Arctic regions must be brought to the region of operations.

(F) Strategies to Foster Community Involvement

• Involve indigenous people and local communities in planning, response, recovery and restoration decisions and operations.

• Conduct outreach to local communities and keep all stakeholders well informed.

(G) Strategies to Ensure Availability of Funds for Response

• Establish an international Arctic response fund to offset the costs of SAR and pollution response.

• Increase penalties and insurance requirements for ships operating in the Arctic to ensure response funding and act as a deterrent.

The workshop identified three key areas of data and research needs:

(1) The updating of weather data due to a lack of overall information, and investment to update navigational charts for Arctic regional seas, ports and waterways;

(2) Studies on the behavior of oil in cold water and technologies for spill response (including the detection of oil under ice as well as cleanup measures for oil in ice); and

(3) Improving the baseline information for Arctic resources (biological/ecological resources and areas important for human use and cultural significance) that could be affected by potential marine incidents.

Two themes resonated throughout the workshop: The Arctic states need to foster and enhance their cooperation to improve joint contingency plans and multinational agreements, as well as to agree to develop mandatory safety regulations for Arctic marine operations. The proper management of risk using appropriate policies and strategies, supported by scientific research, can lead to reduced risk for loss of life and environmental damage.


    Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©