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Canadian Arctic is No Place for Large Cruise Ships

Despite the many precautions Crystal Cruises has taken to reduce the risks of operating in an area that is inadequately mapped, has limited telecommunications, poor weather predictions and a paucity of infrastructure, the risks remain too high, according to a veteran of several Arctic search-and-rescue missions.

Written by Colonel Pierre Leblanc (retired) Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis St-Laurent near Kugluktuk, Nunavut.Pierre Leblanc

The planned crossing of the Northwest Passage by the luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity in August 2016 has raised some concerns with the American and Canadian coast guards as well as some of the small communities it intends to visit. The coast guards are unsettled by the possibility of conducting a search-and-rescue operation for so many passengers, whereas residents of Cambridge Bay, for example, are concerned about the hundreds of visitors overwhelming their community of 1,600.

Cruise ships have been visiting the Canadian Arctic since at least the 1990s. As many as 10 have sailed through the eastern part of the Arctic annually, and some have traversed the Northwest Passage, so this is not a new phenomenon. Furthermore, Crystal Cruises should be commended for the precautions that they are planning to have in place to support this crossing. In addition to hiring the double-hulled British cargo ship Ernest Shackleton as an escort vessel, they plan to use the services of qualified and experienced ice navigators.

But marine accidents in the Arctic are not theoretical exercises. In August 1996, the Hanseatic cruise ship ran aground in the Simpson Strait near Gjoa Haven, Northwest Territories, and in August 2010 the MV Clipper Adventurer ran aground near Kugluktuk, Nunavut. There was no loss of life nor was there a significant environmental impact from either grounding, but, in the case of the MV Clipper Adventurer, it took a Canadian Coast Guard vessel two days to arrive at the scene and provide support.

It’s a concern that many small cruise ships are traversing the Northwest Passage at a time when there is an extremely limited capability to rescue them. Apart from plans to build one new icebreaker, there is no firm strategy to replace the Canadian Coast Guard’s fleet of icebreakers that are reaching the end of their service life.

The potential loss of life and the environmental impact are among the key concerns associated with the pending voyage. A marine accident befalling a ship the size of the Crystal Serenity, which holds more than 1,000 passengers and 600 crew, would require a massive search-and-rescue effort.

Survival in Arctic waters is counted in minutes. The proximity of another vessel may not be sufficient if, as in the case of the Costa Concordia, people jump into the frigid waters of the Northwest Passage without the proper immersion suit needed to survive. When a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter crashed in the M’Clure Strait in 2013, there were no survivors even though the CCGS Amundsen was on the scene in about an hour and the passengers on board the helicopter had experience of Arctic conditions.

The Arctic environment will remain a dangerous area in which to operate for the foreseeable future. The risk is magnified by a combination of factors:

  • Satellite communications are limited by the available bandwidth. In 2009, a major Canadian Forces search-and-rescue exercise crashed the communications network when several federal and territorial agencies mobilized to deal with the incident.
  • There is a lack of infrastructure to support search-and-rescue activities in the Arctic. There are no deep-water ports in the Canadian Arctic. Most of the small communities along the Northwest Passage have only a small nursing station and no doctor. Apart from Inuvik, in the west, and Iqaluit, in the east, there are only short unpaved runways in Canada’s Arctic communities, severely limiting the size of the aircraft that can land there safely. Even the aviation fuel available in such communities will be very limited unless their annual resupply has taken place. Resolute Bay has a gravel runway of approximately 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) and the combined facilities of the Canadian Forces and the Polar Continental Shelf Project could accommodate a large number of people pending their redeployment south. Inuvik and Iqaluit, which have small hospitals and paved runways capable of supporting Boeing 737 size aircraft, are approximately 160 and 240 kilometers (100 and 150 miles) away from the open ocean respectively.
  • There is a lack of bathymetry (the measuring of water depth). Less than 5 percent of the Arctic is mapped to modern international standards.
  • Weather conditions can multiply the challenges. Global warming has meant an increase in powerful Arctic storms that leave nowhere to hide for ships.
  • The Canadian Ice Service will provide the ship with ice data. Nevertheless, multi-year ice moved around by the winds can easily block passages, as the cruise ship The World found out in 2012, when it was unable to pass through the Prince of Wales Strait.

The recognition by Arctic nations that none of them are well equipped to deal with marine emergencies led them to put in place a search-and rescue-agreement under the leadership of the Arctic Council. That agreement will be of little comfort within the Arctic archipelago because other nations’ assets will be too far away to help in a timely manner.

This summer, the Canadian Coast Guard will have a number of aging icebreakers deployed to the Arctic as they usually do, but their primary mission is not to support the cruise line industry. It is more focused on the support of the annual resupply of the Arctic communities of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. If something goes wrong during the Crystal Serenity’s transit of the Northwest Passage, they will come to the rescue, but it may take days.

Currently, the Canadian government is not ready to deal with a major search-and-rescue operation in the Arctic. Even if in the next 10 to 15 years, it will not have the resources to deal with such an issue, given the painfully slow and politicized government system for procuring additional icebreakers and building Arctic deep-sea ports.

The previous government did not deliver on several Arctic promises, such as a deep-sea port in Nanisivik, Nunavut, and the present Liberal government’s budget does not contain the resources necessary to make a significant impact in the foreseeable future.

While visiting Resolute Bay on August 23 2011, the former prime minister Stephen Harper stated that Canada cannot cover the Arctic adequately for search and rescue. I do not disagree, but I suggest that we can do better. Unfortunately it may take a major loss of life before we make progress on our search-and-rescue capability.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Arctic Deeply.

An earlier version of this op-ed suggested that David (Duke) Snider, a retired regional director of the Canadian Coast Guard, had been engaged as an ice navigator for the Crystal Serenity. In fact, he has offered advice to Crystal Cruises about the planned voyage.

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