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Arctic Shipping Routes: Are They Safe Enough?

Posted by Stephen Harris 21 June 2016

Today, 21 June, marks World Hydrography Day, which aims to celebrate the tremendous achievements of hydrographic services around the world, while bringing greater awareness about the lack of hydrographic data of the oceans. 

As a recent Marsh report found, there are huge swaths of the world’s oceans that have little or no up-to-date data of the depth of the ocean floor. The Arctic region is an example of one area considerably lacking data, yet Arctic sea routes are increasingly being used as ice levels hit an all-time low and hunger for energy sources increases.

The use of the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which runs along the Russian Arctic coast, has been a cause of numerous concerns, not only because of the unpredictable weather and ice movements but also the distinct lack of reliable hydrographic data of the ocean floor in this area.

Interest has also been rising for the Northwest Passage (NWP) around northern Alaska however, there is even less bathymetrical data available for this route. While the adoption by the International Maritime Organization (IMO) of the Polar Code is a welcome move, it does not address the poorly charted sea routes that exist throughout this region. Notwithstanding the adoption of the Polar Code, there are a few things operators should be considering:

Bathymetrical Data Needs Improving

Data needs to be improved if ships are going to navigate these waters in greater numbers. The number of ships successfully traversing these routes is still comparatively small, and without extensive knowledge of depth and where hidden shoals may lie, considerable risks remain.

Add to this the complexities that would occur if a large commercial ship did run aground in these regions. The remote location and environmental sensitivity of the area may mean any major loss could have serious physical, environmental, and political effects.

Take Heed of the Polar Code

The Polar Code aims to improve the safety standards of vessels, the equipment on board, and the training of crews operating in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The Code states caution should be exercised when navigating through Arctic and Antarctic waters, with a loud warning about the possible consequences of deviating off planned routes.

In its own words, “The Code acknowledges that the polar waters impose additional navigational demands beyond those normally encountered. In many areas, the chart coverage may not currently be adequate for coastal navigation. It is recognized even existing charts may be subject to unsurveyed and uncharted shoals.”

On world Hydrography Day, we applaud the efforts of those who have written the Polar Code and those who, through hydrographic work, strive to make oceans safer places to navigate.

Related to:  Marine

Stephen Harris