[Show/Hide Left Column]

Search and Rescue (SAR) in the Arctic

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Protection of People and Property

The current search and rescue, or SAR, infrastructure in the Arctic, while varying between regions, is limited. For example, while there is a robust set of assets off the coast of Norway to respond in an emergency, there is little to no infrastructure along the coast of Greenland to respond to a passenger ship in distress. A survey of search and rescue resources among Arctic states indicates limited availability of fixed wing aircraft and helicopters in most of the region. Some survey responses included icebreakers and seasonal patrol vessels that can be used for SAR when near enough to an incident. However, in general, there are shortages of critical SAR response assets, such as long distance, heavy-lift capacity helicopters. The usefulness of these assets is often limited by weather and other operating conditions.

Emergency response efforts are further hampered in many regions by an insufficient shoreside infrastructure needed to provide basic logistics and support functions for SAR missions. The location and availability of SAR assets are often problematic given the vast distances and frequent harsh operating conditions typical in this region. In some instances, such as in connection with oil and gas activities, private industry addresses these gaps and shortfalls by providing its own supplemental SAR capacity as part of its ongoing Arctic operations, but this remains the exception rather than the rule.

Arctic states have attempted to maximize the effectiveness of existing SAR resources by entering into bilateral and sub-regional SAR agreements with neighboring nations that have improved coordination of SAR responses in specific areas of the Arctic. For example, the Russian Federation, Canada and the United States have a search and rescue agreement. Norway and the Russian Federation have a bilateral search and rescue agreement for the Barents Sea that is exercised annually. There are also informal search and rescue arrangements with local governmental and private entities. There is no multilateral search and rescue agreement covering the entire Arctic region.

The future increase in human activity in the Arctic, including Arctic marine shipping and the continued overflight of the Arctic region by commercial aircraft, will place increasing demands on the SAR infrastructure. Many of the infrastructure deficiencies discussed in this report, such as the insufficient number of accurate charts or the need for better real-time information concerning the operational environment and communications difficulties, will also impact search and rescue efforts.

The need to strengthen search and rescue capabilities was specifically recognized by the representatives from the Russian Federation, Canada, the U.S., Denmark and Norway who met in Ilulissat, Greenland, in May 2008. “The increased use of Arctic waters for tourism, shipping, research and resource development also increases the risk of accidents and, therefore, the need to further strengthen search and rescue capabilities and capacity around the Arctic Ocean to ensure an appropriate response from states to any accident,” states the Ilulissat Declaration. “Cooperation, including on the sharing of information, is a prerequisite for addressing these challenges. We will work to promote safety of life at sea in the Arctic Ocean, including through bilateral and multilateral arrangements between or among relevant states.”

Passenger Vessel Safety in the Arctic

The most significant emerging challenge to the existing search and rescue infrastructure arises from the increase in marine tourism and passenger vessels operating in Arctic waters. As large passenger vessels continue to operate more frequently and farther north in the Arctic, the prospect of having to conduct mass rescue operations with limited SAR resources increases. Recent growth in Arctic marine tourism is outpacing infrastructure investment, development and support throughout the region. There are several potential problems associated with responding to an incident aboard a cruise ship. The potential number of people that would have to be rescued from a cruise ship far exceeds the capacity of most SAR response vessels and aircraft available in the Arctic. Cruise ships have a minimal capacity for self-rescue.

Compliance with IMO guidelines for passenger vessels operating in remote areas is voluntary and, as a result, the planning and capability for self-rescue varies. Passengers are likely to be ill-prepared for the weather, which decreases their likelihood of survival if they are not rescued quickly. There are also a host of logistical challenges associated with the lack of shore-side infrastructure in most of the Arctic needed to accommodate and care for those that are rescued, including the lack of sufficient food, lodging and medical facilities. In many cases, the only available platform with capacity to feed and house rescued passengers would be another cruise ship.

A number of potential actions are available to address the challenges presented by emergency response to passenger vessel incidents in Arctic waters. First, ships intending to conduct passenger vessel transits in the Arctic would greatly improve the prospects for a successful rescue and survival of passengers and crew if they coordinated their transits with other passenger ships in the vicinity. In two incidents in the Antarctic, passengers and crew from stricken vessels were successfully transferred to other nearby passenger vessels. One of the stricken passenger vessels, the M/V Explorer, sank shortly after the transfer.

Second, provisions in the Enhanced Contingency Planning Guidance for Passenger Ships Operating in Areas Remote from SAR Facilities (IMO 2006) provide valuable guidance for passenger vessels operating in remote areas such as the Arctic. The voluntary guidelines provide detailed information on emergency drills and inspections, and contain additional requirements for lifeboats, liferafts and survival kits that would allow passengers and crew to better survive the harsh Arctic environment until SAR response arrived on scene. The value of these guidelines is dependent in large part on the degree to which they are adopted and implemented.

Third, search and rescue operations could be improved and limited resources used to best advantage by sharing information, lessons learned and best practices arising from incidents that have already occurred in polar regions, including the two latest Antarctic incidents.

The advantages of mutual assistance between vessels operating in the Arctic, although particularly significant for passenger vessels, extend to all vessels. Voluntary systems have been established that allow search and rescue authorities to identify and request assistance from other vessels in the vicinity of a vessel in distress. The Automated Mutual-Assistance Vessel Rescue System (AMVER) is one such established system that can be accessed by Arctic SAR authorities to identify a possible source for assistance in any distress case in the Arctic region. There are more than 17,000 vessels enrolled in the AMVER network, representing 155 countries. On any given day, more than 3,500 vessels are available to divert and assist in a distress situation at sea. Approximately 450 lives were saved in 2007 because of AMVER. Participation is voluntary unless mandated by a vessel’s flag state, shipping company or other authority. Participating vessels provide regularly updated information on their SAR capabilities and intended track to rescue coordination centers. AMVER information is released only to recognized SAR agencies for safety-of-life-at-sea purposes, and provides rescue coordination centers with data on vessels in the vicinity of a SAR case that may be available to divert and assist.

Another example is the Russian Vessel Monitoring System, referred to as VMS Victoria. The system is intended for near real-time automated monitoring of vessels positions provided vessels are fitted with the ship satellite communication systems: INMARSAT-C or INMARSAT-D+, and for delivering the collected position reports data via Internet to remote users. VMS Victoria caters to the shipowners, operators and organizations responsible for control and surveillance of maritime vessels, as well as for search and rescue at sea. There are more than 1,200 vessels enrolled in the system, among them more than 600 foreign flag-state vessels. VMS Victoria operates constantly and allows its users: to track the movements of their fleets by receiving regular automated position reports from the vessels; to request an immediate position report from any vessel on demand if required; and to send short text messages and FleetNet broadcasts to a vessel/vessels. VMS Victoria processes messages in real time and then transmits them to INMARSAT. It is anticipated that the establishment of the LRIT-system will be an important system to identify ships in the vicinity of a distressed vessel, thereby requesting them to provide assistance.

Promoting the use of mutual vessel assistance systems such as AMVER or VMS Victoria would serve to supplement the extremely limited search and rescue resources and improve SAR capacity in the Arctic.

Although Arctic states often have existing agreements in place to coordinate SAR operations with neighboring nations, there are several advantages to creating a multilateral Arctic SAR agreement that would cover the entire northern region for both aeronautical and maritime SAR. A multilateral SAR agreement for the entire Arctic region would facilitate the most effective use of limited SAR resources throughout the Arctic and would ensure that available Arctic SAR facilities closest to a vessel or aircraft in distress are identified and respond first, regardless of nationality, in order to reduce response time and potentially save the most lives. A region-wide agreement would also improve SAR response by serving as the framework within which to conduct joint exercises and training; share information, lessons learned and best practices; and identify and improve mechanisms for mutual cooperation, coordination and support in search and rescue and emergency response.

The creation of a more comprehensive multilateral SAR agreement would build on existing proposals for an aeronautical Arctic SAR Memorandum of Agreement to include both aeronautical and maritime SAR, as encouraged by the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, 1979, as amended; the Convention on International Civil Aviation, 1944 (Annex 12), as amended; and the International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Manual (IAMSAR Manual). The proposed Arctic Region SAR agreement would identify aeronautical and maritime SAR region lines of delimitation; as affirmed in both conventions, such delimitation of SAR regions is not related to and would not prejudice the delimitation of any boundary between nations.

A multilateral SAR agreement would serve as the centerpiece of cooperation and coordination in support of Arctic emergency response operations while providing an important example of a mutually beneficial regional approach among Arctic nations to address important shared issues of concern.

Since Arctic and Antarctic emergency responses are similar in many ways, Arctic and Antarctic nations engaged in polar SAR could benefit from consultation and cooperation on issues of mutual concern and applicability. The five nations responsible for SAR in the Southern Ocean (New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Chile and South Africa) currently meet to address many of the same challenges that face the eight Arctic Council nations concerning distance, harsh environment and limited SAR resources. In August 2008, New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Chile, South Africa, United States, France, United Kingdom and the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP), met in Valparaiso, Chile, to discuss improving Antarctic SAR coordination and cooperation. One means of enhancing cooperation would be through mutual efforts of the Arctic Council and Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings. Future proposals and recommendations on polar SAR could be coordinated between both international fora to ensure continuity and standardization where appropriate.

Gaps in Preparedness and Response Operations

Remote surveillance and detection technologies (i.e., satellite communications, GPS availability, weather stations) are critical for establishing situational awareness for both preventive and response issues. This overall capability is limited in the Arctic due to a lack of coverage and the availability of real-time weather information.

Lightering in emergency situations and salvage typically represent two distinct marine activities that may be used in whole or in part to prevent and/or recover pollutants, and are considered in many cases synonymous with mechanical response capacities.

While all Arctic states individually support the overall strategic goal of limiting negative environmental impact and establishing sustainable development, the potential for increased shipping has led to increased concern for threats, risk and evaluation of potential consequences worldwide. This leads to a high expectation by public and environmental groups for adoption of stringent preventive measures, as well as thorough mitigation and restoration measures in the event of an incident. This has also contributed to an increasing gap in maintaining realistic response expectations. To address this pressure many recent workshops and panel discussions have indicated a need for more harmonious pan-Arctic shipping rules. Cooperation at this level requires nations to develop common goals and objectives based upon mutually acceptable and scientific criteria. Ultimately the communication of these objectives is vital in maintaining realistic expectations.

While there are exceptions, there are few Arctic-based resources to address oil spills, especially the ability to recover trapped oil in hulls and compartments in both shallow and deep water. A multilateral oil spill contingency plan or an oil spill agreement may be options to address this issue.


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

    Search Guide [toggle]