During the day, a small exercise got underway which reflected a recent collision in the Laptev Sea involving two small tankers which collided whilst following a nuclear ice breaker in convoy.
The exercise engendered wide ranging discussions about the increasing use of the Northern Sea Route and whether the IMO Polar Code will limit the risks of an accident in polar waters.
The route between Europe and Asia extends through 3,800 nautical miles of ice packed waters off Russia’s northern coast from the Barents Sea in the West to the Bering Strait in the East. The route represents a significant cost and time saving shortcut for shipowners and charterers globally.
Looking to the future, as sea ice begins to recede (as we have seen with the Northwest Passage across Canadian waters) and as technology improves, traffic along the Northern Sea Route will only increase, making this region one of significant strategic importance for an East West axis.
In September 2013 the first large vessel, the 75,603 dwt ice-strengthened Danish bulk carrier MS ‘Nordic Orion’ sailed from the Port Metro Vancouver, Canada with a cargo of 73,500 tons of coking coal through the Northwest Passage and reached her destination, the Port of Pori, in Finland on 9 October 2013.
The opening of the Northwest Passage shortened the distance between Vancouver and Pori by 1,000 nautical miles compared to the traditional route via the Panama Canal.
Similar to the Russian perspective on the legal status of the Northern Sea Route, Canada views the Northwest Passage as an internal waterway, going so far as to call it “the Canadian Northwest Passage.” However, the international community views the route as an international passage.
In addition to international legal questions, increased use of the Northwest Passage raises infrastructure challenges. As with Russia, maritime experts have urged the Canadian government to increase its capabilities along the passage, including improving Arctic surveillance, port infrastructure, search and rescue preparedness, and environmental response capacities.
Currently the Russian Northern Sea Route is only available between June and November due to near impassable winter ice conditions. This very short time frame limits the benefits (and risks) from the increased traffic to these 26 weeks.
The arguments about the use of navigable polar waters continue to rage amongst environmental groups. Two events are immediately cited by campaigners seeking to limit the use of ice free waters during certain months of the year.
Firstly, the catastrophic grounding of the ‘Exxon Valdez’ in March 1989 when she was employed to transport crude oil from the Alyeska consortium’s pipeline terminal in Valdez, Alaska, to the lower 48 states of the United States. The loss of oil from the vessel amounted to 257,000 barrels or roughly the contents of 17 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
Secondly, of much smaller magnitude, was the sinking of the MV Explorer cruise vessel which was carrying more than 100 holidaymakers, when it struck an iceberg in freezing Antarctic waters in December 2007. All passengers escaped safely but the bunker oil was lost with the vessel, and passengers afloat for hours on end in open lifeboats in polar waters cast a chilling image.
Despite these concerns commercial operations are in the ascendancy and 2014 was a record year for the tonnage that moved through the Northern Sea Route.
Whilst the Russian shipping industry remains comfortable with an icebreaker escort through the route, pressure has mounted for Russia to increase search and rescue (SAR) bases and develop additional disaster response arrangements in the Arctic.
From 1 January 2017 the IMO-adopted Polar Code will come into effect regularising shipping within polar waters.
The Polar Code is intended to cover the full range of shipping-related matters relevant to navigation in waters surrounding the two poles – ship design, construction and equipment; operational and training concerns; search and rescue; and, equally important, the protection of the unique environment and eco-systems of the polar regions.
Whether such a Code can overcome human error and delay or prevent another major sinking or oil related disaster remains to be seen.