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SOS from the Arctic

What happens if a ship loaded with toxic chemicals founders in the Arctic during the dark months of the polar night? What about the crew? And the ecosystem? 

GO Sars Foto Kjartan Mæstad_650x432.jpg

Northern waters seen from the deck of RV G.O. Sars, operated by the Institute of Marine Research and the University of Bergen. Photo: Kjartan Mæstad, IMR. Front photo: Jo Jorem Aarseth, The Fram Centre.

By Trude Haugseth Moe, UiT the Arctic University of Norway

This was the starting point for a major research project about shipping in the Arctic. In brief, the answer is that there is a high risk that human lives will be lost – and that it is untrue that there is very little biological activity in the Arctic during the dark months. In fact, many species really thrive also in moonlight and under the northern lights – and this means that nature is vulnerable all year round, even during the polar night. 

Fram Centre side-event at Arctic Frontiers: Regulating Arctic Shipping: Political, legal, technological and environmental challenges. Monday 23rd 2017 14.45 – 15.15

Foundering in the arctic  

Imagine that it is November; we are in the dark months and it is bitterly cold in the Arctic. The Oleum, a freighter from Hamburg, is on its way towards the Kara Sea near Novaja Zemlya.  The cargo consists of chemicals, a delivery for an oil platform in Siberia. In the middle of the bitterly cold polar night, the winds increase in strength, the waves become huge and the Oleum rolls and pitches perilously. Sudden the engine stops. In despair, the captain realises that they are unable to cast anchor because there is a thick layer of ice over the anchor winch. The ship drifts helplessly towards land and founders.

What happens to the crew? And what about the toxic cargo and the fuel that will soon be on its way to the bottom of the ocean? How will this affect the ecosystem all the way down there in the deep, dark seas?

Melted arctic ice means new traffic

This fictitious scenario formed the starting point for the major cross-disciplinary research project called ‘A-lex’, which addresses the political, legal, environmental and technological challenges connected with a completely new type of shipping in the Arctic. The background for the project was that over recent years the Arctic sea ice has melted so much that the Northeast Passage is now open for shipping. Today it is possible – for parts of the year – to sail between Asia and Europe via the Arctic. A-lex is a collaboration project between the FRAM Centre, the Faculties of Law and of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education at UiT (the Arctic University of Norway), Marintek and Akvaplan-niva. After four years, the project has now officially ended.

High risk of loss of human life  

One of the conclusions the researchers have reached is that there is a high risk that human lives will be lost if ships founder in the Arctic. Search and rescue services are too far away if accidents occur. It is far from infrastructure, the weather is cold and variable, and in addition, there is the human factor in conditions that are so physically demanding. For instance, how would thousands of elderly people on board a cruise ship tackle this kind of situation? 

The project has also uncovered a great number of legal issues concerning international regulation of shipping, liability and compensation in cases of accidents, and safety for both crews on the ships and any search and rescue crewmembers. 

Had to repudiate assumption

What about the environment? There are many unknown factors concerning the ecosystem in the Arctic, as there has so far been little research on it. It is only 3 – 4 years since scientists from UiT started to go on winter expeditions to the ocean in the Arctic. 

Up to now, one has assumed that since sunlight is the basis for all biological production on land and in the sea, and since the sun does not shine in the Arctic during the winter, there is no biological activity there in winter. In fact, most seabirds and whales have also migrated south.

“This ‘established assumption’ has now been challenged and in many ways repudiated”, says Lars-Henrik Larsen from Akvaplan-niva.

“Fish eat and reproduce in the dark, there is an abundance of zooplankton and they thrive in moonlight and the northern lights”, the scientist claims.

Chemicals in the spawning ground for cod  

So what about the chemicals that disappeared into the dark depths of the sea when the fictitious ship Oleum foundered? The spillage will probably seriously affect the ecosystem. The place in which the imaginary ship the Oleum sank is in fact the spawning ground for Arctic cod. The Arctic cod is not present at the exact time that the ship’s toxic cargo sinks, but swims in to spawn a couple of months later. Now the spillage of both diesel and chemicals has taken place and we have little knowledge about how this may affect the success of the Arctic cod’s spawning. 

“We see that even though the resources (the fish) in the sea are not present when an accident occurs, a spillage of chemicals or petroleum may harm them at a later time. The resources in the sea are not separated in time and space, and one must look at both short-term and long-term consequences of an accident,” says Lars-Henrik Larsen. 

Hope for more research 

Tore Henriksen, leader of the K. G. Jebsen Centre for Maritime Law at the Faculty of Law at UiT, hopes that it will be possible to continue research in this area.

 “Cross-disciplinary research collaboration is both challenging and at the same time very useful. One has to communicate so that people outside one’s own field understand. But now that we have acquired so much knowledge in the different fields, we would like to continue and this is something we will aim to achieve,” Henriksen concludes. 

More Information about the Project:

The complete name of the project is A-lex: Regulating Arctic Shipping: Political, legal, technological and environmental challenges

The project has been funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Research Council of Norway, the Fram Centre and UiT. 

Click here to find more information about the project! 

Fram Centre side-event at Arctic Frontiers: Regulating Arctic Shipping: Political, legal, technological and environmental challenges. Monday 23rd 2017 14.45 – 15.15

This article is also published in Fram Forum Conference Edition 2017 and in Fram Forum 2017. Read other editions of the journal from the Fram Centre here.