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Ship in harbour in Arctic Tromso. Photo: I. Quaile 2014
Image: DW/I. Quaile

Arctic catastophe

Irene Quaile
February 7, 2014

As climate change warms the Arctic, oil rigs are opening, ships are making use of new shipping routes and tourists are flocking to see the icebergs. But experts warn that we are not adequately prepared for accidents.


Climate change has made offshore oil and gas drilling possible in the Arctic. Last December, the Prirazlomnoye oil rig went into production. Shipping has also increased dramatically in Arctic waters in the last few years. International freight companies are using the Northern Sea Route, along the Russian coast, to transport gas and other commodities. This reduces the distance between Shanghai and Hamburg by around 6,400 kilometers, compared with the usual route via the Suez Canal.

Tourism in the region is also growing. An increasing number of cruise ships are making their way through Arctic waters during the summer months. What happens if one of these ships sinks? When the Costa Concordia cruise ship hit rocks off the Tuscan island of Giglio in January 2012 and tipped onto its side, it became clear that this type of tourism is risky. What would happen if a liner were to collide with an iceberg in the remote regions around Spitsbergen or Greenland?

Map of shipping routes in Arctic
The Northern Sea Route, North-west passage and Central passages all pass through Arctic waters

An accident in the Arctic

The Arctic Institute Center for Circumpolar Security Studies assembled an international team of experts to examine existing infrastructure in the six Arctic coastal states. These are the United States, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and Russia. The initial results were presented in Tromsø, Norway in January and have been cause for alarm.

Kathrin Keil from the IASS Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, investigated developments in the oil and gas sector. She warned that the unpredictability and variability of weather and ice conditions would severely limit the options for responding to an oil accident in the region. The ice cover in May can be between 30 and 90 percent, she explained.

SINTEF oil boom
Oil booms are of limited use in icy watersImage: SINTEF

The ice-free period can be as short as one month or as long as nine. To date, there is no adequate technology available to successfully deal with the results of an oil spill in Arctic waters. The Institute also says the 'Oil Spill Response Plan' provided by Gazprom for the Prirazlomnoye rig lacks detail. The rig is located close to several nature reserves and Kail warns that these areas would be extremely vulnerable if oil or fuel were to spill. She has called for the tightest possible safety regulations, given that this is the first offshore oil platform to go into operation in the Arctic.

Not enough icebreakers

The existing infrastructure is also inadequate for the increase in Arctic shipping, says Malte Humpert, Executive Director of the Arctic Institute. He says the icebreaker fleet is not big enough to support the growing number of vessels sailing through Arctic regions. Icebreakers are able to cut paths through Arctic ice.

The increase in the number of cruise boats, especially near the Norwegian Spitsbergen archipelago and off the west coast of Greenland, presents risks. If a cruise ship carrying 3,000 people were to collide with an iceberg near the popular tourist town Ilulissat, the existing search and rescue capacity would not be sufficient to cope. The available planes, helicopters and ships would be too few and take too long to reach the accident site, says Arctic Institute's Marc Jacobsen.

With just 4,500 residents, Ilulissat would be unable to provide adequate medical treatment or shelter for people affected by the crash. Oil and other toxic chemicals dumped by the damaged vessel would be very difficult to clean-up. There is also a shortage of satellite, internet and mobile phone connections, meaning communication would be limited.

Grönland Schiff im Eis
The icebergs of Ilulissat are the main tourist attractionImage: DW/I.Quaile

Politicians prepared to take risks

The risks of the increasing commercialization of the Arctic are high on the priority of the region's politicians, says Magnus Johannesson, Director of the Permanent Secretariat of the Arctic Council in Tromsø. In an interview with DW, he stressed the importance of ongoing negotiations aimed at introducing a 'Polar Code' to regulate Arctic shipping. It is set to come into effect in 2016.

Johannesson also referred to the SAREX exercises conducted in 2013. These simulated a shipping accident to test search and rescue capacity. But Marc Jacobsen from the Arctic Institute says the exercise was too small in scale to provide a realistic picture of readiness. There were only 250 people on the vessel used in the mock accident.

"I think everyone is aware that there could be better infrastructure, but these are the first steps," Johannesson said. "The Arctic states are very aware of that and doing their best to speed this up".

The possibility of a disaster in the Arctic

Anton Vasiliev, Russia's ambassador to the Arctic Council, assumes his country will have proper infrastructure in place along the Northern Sea Route within the next few years. Iceland's Foreign Minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson is also confident that security and response infrastructure will be improved.

"In the end we are always worried about the ocean around Iceland, so the environment and security matter. The possibility of a disaster in the Arctic is why we are paying so much attention to the region," he told DW. "The attention to the economic potential of the Arctic is growing fast. But I don't think it is moving so fast that we cannot manage it."

But environmental groups are increasingly concerned about commerical activity in the Arctic. "With the increasing ship traffic, there is a higher risk of accidents and pollution that will impact both humans and wildlife to a very serious extent," said Nina Jensen, who heads WWF Norway.

"We do not know enough about the marine environment to be able to avoid serious impacts. We do not have adequate regulations in place, and there is no sufficient oil spill preparedness," she added.

The Polar Code will be a first step, but fails to tackle issues such as black carbon pollution, invasive species and the use of heavy fuel oil, Jensen warned.

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