As rapidly thinning ice and increasing resource mining opens up hitherto frozen arctic sea routes, new developments emphasise the need for the shipping industry to begin to examine the ramifications of some unprecedented possibilities and events. The inevitable use of these new shipping lanes will mandate changes to a slew of industry practices, including in areas of ship design and construction, antipollution measures, environmental protection initiatives and regulation, and will have far reaching consequences on an industry that will undoubtedly push to use these new routes to shorten sailings and slash bunker costs. This, coupled with the exploitation of natural resources in the Arctic, threatens the local environment in a myriad of ways, with the added concern that a degradation of the Arctic region would have catastrophic consequences for the planet as a whole.
The Arctic covers a sixth of the earth’s landmass. It stretches over 30 million square kilometers, and is a region of vast natural resources and a very clean environment compared with most areas of the world. Realising this, the Arctic Council was established after the Ottawa Declaration of 1996: an intergovernmental forum of States with a direct presence in the region, it aims to ‘provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States’. The Council was mandated to particularly manage issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic. Member States of the Arctic Council are Canada, Denmark (including Greenland and the Faroe Islands), Finland, Iceland, Norway, the Russian Federation, Sweden, and the United States of America.
A recent Reuters report in the New York Times highlights how sensitive the region really is, and has given rise to fresh concerns about sustainability of the Arctic. It quotes an earlier report by the Arctic Council nations; called The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, the document will serve as a formal precursor to environmental and other policies that these countries will undoubtedly pursue. In fact, the IMO is said to be poised to adopt a resolution that will throw its weight further behind the Arctic Council and perhaps mandate harmonised requirements and guidelines for commercial shipping.
Amongst other suggestions, the study recommends, “Arctic nations reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and other air pollutants from ships, work to lower the risk of oil spills, and consider setting aside special areas of the Arctic Ocean for environmental protection”.
The consequences of Arctic warming are expected to be further exaggerated with much increased shipping activity. Existing wildlife will be threatened with the introduction of new invasive species. Oil spills will have a much greater impact in this relatively pristine region.
More particular areas of concern include the fact that whales in the Bering Strait would be disturbed by the expected increase in shipping, with unknown consequences on their migration and numbers. Seabirds and polar bear and seal pups are particularly sensitive to oil and “can quickly die of hypothermia if it gets into their feathers or fur”, according to the report. Whales, walruses and seals are especially vulnerable as they struggle for food and to communicate with each other in noisy waters. The impact of increased air pollution is similar; the impact of an accident involving accidental release of dangerous cargo and oil would be catastrophically ruinous.
The report says that reduction in sea ice will lengthen the shipping season and disturb migratory patterns of animals. Risk of collision with whales would increase, since narrow corridors between ice shelves would be used by them as well as commercial shipping. Increased risk from invasive species is expected, either through ballast water, ship’s hulls or from cargo. “Introduction of rodent species to islands harbouring nesting seabirds, as evidenced in the Aleutian Islands, can be devastating,” says the study.
The Council fears that measures put in place so far as not enough. Moreover, many analysts believe that the consequences of commercial ships sailing through this frozen region that has major fisheries within it remain unfathomable to an extent; we simply do not have enough data to be sure of how this complex ecosystem would react to a disturbance. The Arctic States are also worried that with increased mining, gas leasing and other commercial activity, damage to the Arctic could be sudden and irreversible. Rules and guidelines for shipbuilders vary and are largely voluntary, they point out.
Speaking on the release of the report that he chaired, Lawson Brigham, a University of Alaska Fairbanks professor and retired Coast Guard captain, implied that action needed to be taken soon. “It’s not a question of whether the maritime industry is coming to the Arctic,” he said. “It has already come”.