Thousands of passengers sail around Svalbard, Norway, each year. In a recent article, “Everyone Wants the Arctic, but When an Accident Occurs, We Lose,” Sverre Nordahl Engeness, head of the Norwegian coast guard, and Odd Jarl Borch, a professor at Nord University, stressed the need to invest in capacity in the North to handle the increase in cruise ships visiting Norway.
In fact, all Arctic countries are reporting higher cruise ship traffic, in addition to a growth in fishing vessels and local transport.
At the same time, we must be cautious when we generalize about the Arctic. The challenges are very different in different areas of the North. This is due not only to the fact that Norway’s Arctic has very different climatic conditions from North America’s Arctic, but also that maritime traffic is spread out across the region.
The September sailing of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage – from Alaska to Canada and Greenland – prompted suggestions of the ultimate crisis scenario, in which a passenger ship with several thousand people on board has a fire on-board or sinks. But Canadian authorities at both national and local levels say the biggest challenge they face is not a cruise ship in difficulty, but a lack of resources to assist local small-scale rescue operations.
With cruise ships, one knows where they are (they are, after all, quite easy to locate), and they rarely sail alone – the Crystal Serenity hired the British research vessel RRS Ernest Shackleton to accompany the expedition – and they often have significant resources on board should an emergency arise. In fact, the biggest challenge to search-and-rescue in Canada is the number of lives lost due to accidents of small vessels and being out on the ice. Those who die in these circumstances are usually local residents, not passengers aboard large cruise ships.
If the coast guard vessel or helicopter service is stationed in the south, it is often too late by the time it arrives. Bad weather, changing climatic conditions and vast distances make it difficult to locate a sinking ship or a group of hunters who have gone through the ice.
In Canada and Greenland, one solution to this challenge is to expand local resources so communities can act as first responders. This does not require a large investment. It could be as small as purchasing a boat dedicated to rescue operations, distributing GPS detectors to 200 residents or holding annual courses focusing on survival. These measures are quite different from the extensive public procurement processes needed to acquire new icebreakers or rescue helicopters.
In Norway, and the most vulnerable waters in our part of the Arctic, the situation is different. Approximately 80 percent of all maritime traffic in the Arctic goes through Norwegian waters, says Undersecretary Marit Røsland of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Most of this traffic runs along the coast of northern Norway, where resource capacity in a crisis is on a completely different level from what exists elsewhere in the Arctic.
Around Svalbard, however, there are fewer vessels – about 70 percent of them fishing boats. Should something go wrong, these cases are handled by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Bodø. Yet both SARiNOR, a research program on search-and-rescue in the High North, and MARPART – the large-scale project on Maritime Preparedness and International Partnership headed by Nord University – have pointed out that one sinking cruise ship would pose a serious challenge to the coast guard and the two rescue helicopters stationed in Longyearbyen.
The point is simple. The different parts of the Arctic do not present the same kind of challenges. This also means that the solutions cannot be uniform. While Greenland is in the process of introducing a voluntary regime inspired by ICE-SAR, Iceland’s civilian rescue teams, and by the Canadian Rangers, this approach would have little effect on Svalbard, where the population is small and the challenges are different.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of Arctic Deeply.