Arctic maritime emergency response capability should be improved, report says

Infrastructure for responding to Arctic maritime accidents could prove inadequate as sea ice declines, energy demand grows and vessel traffic increases, according to a report released on Jan. 29 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of New Hampshire.

The Coastal Response Research Center, a UNH and NOAA partnership on the university's Durham, NH, campus, produced the report after a panel from Arctic nation governments, industries and indigenous communities assessed potential threats from maritime accidents in the Arctic.

"The reduction of polar sea ice and the increasing worldwide demand for energy will likely result in a dramatic increase in the number of vessels that travel Arctic waters. As vessel traffic increases, disaster scenarios are going to become more of a reality," said Nancy E. Kinner, UNH co-director of the CRRC and a professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Recommendations included studying the behavior of oil in cold water and improving technologies for spill response in Arctic conditions. They were based on the panel's examination of five potential Arctic emergency response scenarios. Two of these directly involved oil: an explosion on a fixed drilling rig north of Alaska, and a large spill resulting from a collision between a tanker and fishing vessel.

Cold-water environments

CRRC "has been investing in research on spill response techniques and know-how in cold-water environments" since 2005, the report noted. It said that the center is a collaborating partner with the Joint Industry Project (JIP) on Oil in Ice coordinated by SINTEF, a leading Scandinavian research organization based in Trondheim, Norway.

"The JIP is validating chemical and physical behavior of oils and response techniques (mechanical, in-situ burning and dispersant use) and developing best practices for spill contingency plans for a variety of sea ice conditions. CRRC's contribution to the project examines the potential for exposure to biological resources associated with first-year sea ice," the report said.

Its other recommendations were to strengthen multinational plans and agreements for all types of responses, improve logistical support capabilities for disaster response entities, update Arctic weather data and navigational charts, and designate potential ports where damaged vessels could be taken.

Sea ice declines

Sea ice coverage in the Arctic reached record lows during the summers of 2006 and 2007, and recent modeling by the US National Snow and Ice Data Center suggest that the Arctic will be consistently ice-free during the summer as soon as 2030, the report said.

"The decline of Arctic sea ice has resulted in increased activities such as oil and gas exploration, mineral speculation and exploration, northern moving fisheries, and tourism in sub-Arctic and Arctic waters. Some of these previously un-navigable waters are becoming more available to vessel traffic," it noted.

"Now is the time to prepare for maritime accidents and potential spills in the Arctic. This report clearly indicates that international cooperation and adequate resources are key to saving lives and protecting this special region," said Amy Merten, NOAA co-director of the CRRC.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com

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