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23 December 2020
As noted in the white paper on Norway's Arctic policy (the High North Report), maritime activities in the High North are expected to increase due to:
With increased activities comes an increased risk of accidents. The remoteness, cold temperatures and vulnerability of the environment causes challenges for emergency response, including:
These additional risks must be taken into account by those operating in the area.
From a Norwegian perspective, the High North encompasses the northern part of mainland Norway, including its coastal areas and territorial sea, Svalbard and the vast Northern Sea. While tourists are attracted to the area for its landscapes, the Northern Lights and midnight sun, fishing is a key livelihood, and commercial shipping is also on the increase. The sea is known for rough winter storms, and in the northern-most Arctic area shipping activities are also exposed to ice throughout the year. These conditions create particular challenges should an accident occur.
While the High North has yet to see any major casualties, a number of steps are being taken to achieve a higher level of preparedness given the risk of accidents resulting from increased shipping activities. Regional cooperation on SAR, pollution control and clean-up is secured through the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, both of which have been negotiated by the members of the Arctic Council. Bilateral agreements have also been entered into between Norway and Russia.
Several exercises have been undertaken as training for those involved in SAR operations and pollution response. The Barents Rescue is arranged every third year with participants from Norway, Russia, Finland and Sweden. Other examples are the SARex and SARex Svalbard exercises, which have involved academia, official authorities, material and equipment suppliers, service providers and industry and public entities. The exercises test available equipment and existing procedures in full-scale operations in order to give vital experience to those involved and identify the challenges which still exist.
Significant research is also being made into safety at sea in the north, an interesting example being the NORDLAB test lab at the Nord University in Bodø, where emergency response exercises can be conducted using crisis management tools and simulator technology to increase situational awareness and improve risk assessments.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has put cruise activities on hold, it is expected that these will return, and likely increase, post-pandemic. A major cruise ship casualty near Svalbard is a worst-case scenario. On 23 March 2019 the cruise ship Viking Sky suffered engine difficulties in bad weather near Hustadvika, off the coast of mainland Norway, but fortunately avoided grounding. While this incident did not take place in the High North, it turned the attention of the Norwegian authorities to the risk of a major cruise ship casualty, which in turn led to the establishment of the cruise committee. This committee has been tasked with drafting a report by December 2021, which will identify and recommend specific measures to reduce risks relating to cruise activities, taking into account the cost-benefit of the measures.
The Norwegian authorities have recognised that the vastness of the seas – and hence the distance from the emergency services, which are primarily located on the mainland – mean that those operating in the area must be prepared to help themselves. This fundamental fact was acknowledged in the adoption of the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code), which entered into force in 2017. The code sets out design, construction, equipment, operational, training, SAR and environmental protection requirements for ships operating in the waters surrounding the north and south poles. It must be expected that the technical requirements for ships operating in the High North will continue to develop with technological progress, since the primary response to a casualty in the High North will, in most instances, continue to be from those working on board.
Each casualty is different, and the response to the casualty will vary depending on whether it involves a smaller fishing vessel or a cruise ship and whether it occurs near mainland Norway or in the more remote areas near Svalbard. Should a casualty occur, the shipowner will activate its emergency procedure and inform its insurer.
The authorities involved will largely be the same as those involved in a casualty occurring elsewhere along the Norwegian coast:
However, aspects of the initial response may be different. First, the Norwegian Civil Defence (NCD) is likely to be involved. While the NCD could also become involved in a major incident further south, a major incident in the High North is likely to require air-borne resources, and the NCD operates several helicopters. Further, since parts of the North are sparsely populated, it is more challenging to mobilise the amount of voluntary civil resources needed for a clean-up operation. The NCD will therefore also contribute manpower.
If the casualty occurs in the Svalbard archipelago or surrounding waters, the governor of Svalbard will play an important decision-making role. The governor is the Norwegian government's highest-ranking representative in the area and acts as both the chief of police and county governor. The governor is also responsible for the rescue service and is the environmental protection authority for the area.
Shipowners and insurers normally also investigate an incident and provide support to the crew during other investigations, often with the assistance of external lawyers. Depending on where the casualty occurrs, particular attention must be paid to travel accessibility and communication challenges arising due to limited telecoms and satellite cover above 72° North. While it will normally be beneficial to be on site, there are an increasing number of options for gaining access to some of the information collected as part of a shipboard investigation remotely or through other channels. To the extent permitted by telecoms cover, such options should be utilised to maximise the efficiency of the on-site attendance.
A significant oil spill in the Arctic could have a detrimental effect on this unique and sensitive environment. Cold temperatures affect the viscosity of oil, and even though a ban on the use of heavy fuel oils will help to protect the environment, current methods and equipment for removing oil from the sea are less efficient than for alternative types of fuel. A clean-up operation is also more demanding for the people involved due to the cold temperatures. Conducting a full-scale clean-up operation is accordingly likely to meet a number of both technical and operational challenges.
Shipowners have a legal duty to avoid or limit pollution. While technical requirements increase safety at sea, there is normally little that the crew can do once an incident has occurred. In all instances of major pollution, the Norwegian authorities will declare a state action, which means that they take control of the pollution response. In practice, the shipowner's duty to take action accordingly becomes secondary to the state-led operation. The decision to organise the pollution response as a state-led action has clear benefits in an Arctic response where there can be a coordinated effort by trained services.
Once an initial rescue operation has been completed, if the vessel cannot be salved, a wreck-removal operation may be required. There are particular considerations which must be borne in mind when performing wreck-removal operations in remote areas as a result of drift ice, cold temperatures, remoteness and wildlife (eg, polar bears on Svalbard).
A recent example is the removal of the wreck of the fishing vessel Northguider, which grounded in the Hinlopen Straits, Svalbard, in December 2018. An initial attempt at wreck removal was made during the summer season of 2019, but had to be postponed until the 2020 season partially due to difficult drift ice conditions. Ice forecasts and ice-mitigating efforts were necessary to ensure the successful completion of the operation. The wreck was located far from a logistics base, which also created challenges relating to supplies and crew changes.
In order to mitigate the challenges of a wreck-removal operation in a remote area, the particular challenges (eg, ice delay and mobilisation) should be carefully identified and regulated in the wreck-removal contract. Finally, a thorough risk assessment will help to identify the risks involved and provide guidance throughout the operation.
For further information on this topic please contact Nina M Hanevold-Sandvik or Markus Laurantzon at Wikborg Rein by telephone (+47 22 82 75 00) or email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). The Wikborg Rein website can be accessed at www.wr.no.
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