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Search and Rescue in Arctic Waters 

(by Karl Magnus Eger)


The International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (1979) provides a system for the rescue of persons at sea and cooperation among states, including: rescue coordination centres, ship position reporting systems and advanced entry of rescue units into territorial waters of the states. Arctic state parties1  of the Search and Rescue (SAR) Convention shall coordinate SAR incidents in their respective areas, make sure that rescue services are available during the shipping season and cooperate with each other2 .

Figure 5.3: Boundaries of Arctic NAVAREAs



To facilitate maritime safety communications, the IMO adopted the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System. It is mandatory for all SOLAS Convention parties’, cargo ships of 300 gross tons or greater and to all passenger ships. NAVAREAs are Navigational Areas selected for the issue of navigational warnings, provide traffic services, broadcast meteorological forecasts and related maritime safety information (See Figure 5.3). Recently, the IMO’s Committee on Communications and Search and Rescue approved the creation of Arctic NAVAREAs up to 90° north. Nonetheless, there are no coordination agreements any further north, which is important when considering any future TPPs. Some Arctic coastal states are responsible of coordination of one or more NAVAREAs within the Arctic. Arctic coastal states are responsible for the broadcast of maritime safety information in navigable waters within those areas. When it comes to service providers, Canada, Norway and the Russia were identified, with the United States and Denmark agreeing to be Preparation Service providers for designated areas3 .

As illustrated in the figure above, Canada is responsible for providing meteorological information, traffic services, navigational warnings and coordination within the areas XVII and XVIII; Norway for the area XIX, United States for the areas VI and XII and Russia for the areas XX and XXI. The delimitation of such areas is not related to and shall not prejudice the delimitation of any boundaries between States. However, it is interesting that Canada is responsible for coordination of the eastern part of the Bering Strait, the northern slope of Alaska, and the entire NWP. In other words, the NWP is a three-state route, and should in principle or practice be divided between the U.S. Canada and Denmark, but Canada is now responsible coordinator for the entire NWP in addition to America's northern slope of Alaska and Denmark's west coast of Greenland (see chapter 1).

According to the NAVAREA (IV, XVIII), Canada and the U.S. are SAR and meteorological information providers of Denmark’s west coast of Greenland (See Figure 5.3). In addition, the Hudson Bay in Canada is also part of NAVAREA IV, for which U.S. acts as SAR Service Coordinator. In terms of Arctic sea routes, this area also supports the weather forecasts and SAR to the Arctic Bridge.  However, U.S. has not been issuing meteorological forecasts and preparation service for that area. Currently, Canada is providing such kind of service. Canada and the U.S. should agree on their responsibilities, whether, as issuing service or preparation service4 .

Some Concluding Remarks

IMO has divided Arctic waters into SAR coordination and responsibility areas. Canada is responsible for providing meteorological information, traffic services and coordination of the eastern part of the Bering Strait, the northern slope of Alaska and the NWP. Russia is responsible for the NEP, from the Barents Sea in the east to the Bering Sea in the east. There is no SAR coordination north of 90° N, which means that no states are SAR responsible for any TPPs. There are limited aids to navigation and traffic service systems in order to monitor ships entering Arctic waters. GPS and DGPS are adequate for some areas, but in most areas it is not available. In addition, Canada operates a voluntary reporting system, NORDREG, for vessels that operates on the NWP. Nevertheless, not all ships that reports their entrance to the Canadian authorities. This means that the Canadian authorities’ does not have sufficient control of the annual shipping on the NWP.

On the other hand, the Russian Administration regulates navigation on the NSR through the NSR Guidelines. Before any vessel can enter the NSR, the Marine Operational Headquarters requires a control inspection in west or east, depending on which direction the vessel is sailing from. Russia has a considerable larger and stronger icebreaker fleet to support operations on the NSR than Canada has for the NWP. Russia has 5 nuclear icebreakers available for NSR support, in addition, several river and diesel icebreakers operating on a year-round basis. Canada operates 6 icebreakers (2 heavy, 3 medium and 1 light) for seasonal (May-November) NWP operations. Both fleets are aging and needs improvements in light of any increased ship traffic in the future.



  •  1. All the Arctic states have ratified the agreement
  •  2. Van der Zwaag, D.L. (ed.) (2008), Governance of Arctic Marine Shipping. Marine & Environmental Law Institute, Dalhousie University, Halifax, October 2008.
  •  3. IMO COMSAR. (2006). IMO Sub-Committee on Radio Communications and Search and Rescue, 10th Session, Report to the Maritime Safety Committee, COMSAR 10/16. London 2006.
  •  4. Environment Canada: http://www.weatheroffice.gc.ca/marine/index_e.html
  •  5. Source: ftp://ftp.wmo.int/Documents/SESSIONS/EC-PORS-1/Doc.4.3.pdf

Karl Magnus Eger, 2010, Search and Rescue in Arctic Waters, CHNL.© 

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