A Ship Runs Aground in the Arctic Ocean

The best—and worst—case scenarios as vessel traffic increases in the Arctic.

Imagine you are on a ship in the Arctic—and it runs aground. You can hear the sound of metal grinding as the ship slowly lists to the side. The crew are busy sealing windows and checking on lifeboats. Rescue is at hand… except it takes an agonizing 16 hours for the nearest vessel to reach your remote location.

This scenario was very real for the 102 passengers on board the Akademik Ioffe when it ran aground in the Canadian Arctic in late August. A first-hand account of that experience by Ed Struzik appears in Yale Environment 360.  Fortunately, no one was hurt when the ship hit a shoal, or during subsequent rescue operations. And although Canada’s Transportation Safety Board noted that the ship suffered some damage, there’s no indication the incident caused an oil spill or any significant ecological damage.

All in all, the grounding of the Akademik Ioffe, which has since been refloated, was the best-case scenario. Not all Arctic shipping accidents will be resolved as smoothly; this incident underscores the risks associated with increasing vessel traffic in the Arctic.

As a result of climate change, the Arctic is already experiencing a dramatic loss of summer sea ice, including decreases both in the area covered by ice and ice thickness. This in turn has lengthened the amount of time the Arctic is open to vessel traffic. As my colleague Sarah Bobbe noted in a recent blog, Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company, will send its first cargo ship through the Northern Sea Route this month. Recreational cruises are poised to increase in number, too. The large luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity already sailed the fabled Northwest Passage twice. As vessel traffic increases, so does the potential for future accidents that could put human lives in jeopardy, disrupt subsistence practices of Indigenous peoples, and mar the marine ecosystem.

Did you know that only a fraction of Arctic waters have been charted to modern standards?

Modern, accurate charting is essential for safe navigation, yet most of this region has only been surveyed with now-outdated technology. Sometimes depth soundings on modern charts date back to the 18th century! Today, less than 2 percent (about 4,300 square nautical miles) of U.S. Arctic waters has been surveyed with modern multibeam technology according to the Committee on the Marine Transportation Systems.

What if passengers or crew members are injured in an Arctic shipping accident?

Arctic waters are vast and extremely remote. It may take a long time for search and rescue personnel and resources to arrive. Harsh, unpredictable weather conditions—including storms, fog and cold—could also impede rescue operations.

What if a ship spills fuel in the Arctic?

A major spill would be catastrophic for marine wildlife. If the spill involves heavy fuel oil—a tar-like, extremely toxic substance—it would be enormously costly and difficult to clean up. There could be far-reaching impacts on Arctic communities that rely on healthy ocean waters to support a subsistence way of life.

Even in the absence of an accident or oil spill, increasing vessel traffic may have serious ecological impacts in the Arctic. These impacts run the gamut from increased conflict between ships and subsistence hunters (who often travel far offshore in small boats), to ship strikes of marine mammals, increased air pollution from vessel smokestacks, introduction of invasive species from ballast water and discharges of sewage and graywater into the ocean.

Fortunately, there are ways to manage and mitigate these risks.

With the support of our members and followers, Ocean Conservancy has advocated measures that improve ship safety and minimize threats to Arctic communities and wildlife. You’ve been part of our efforts to secure well-charted, safe shipping corridors to make vessel traffic more predictable. Your efforts have resulted in the designation of formal Areas to be Avoided that steer ships away from dangerous coastlines, important wildlife habitat and subsistence hunting and fishing grounds. And your voice has helped us make important progress against the use and carriage of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters.

While our combined efforts are paying off, we still have a lot of work ahead of us. Together, we must continue to call for common-sense shipping standards and practices to protect Arctic waters, the region’s abundant marine life and its coastal communities, long into the future.

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