K. Joseph Spears

In true “can do” Finnish fashion, Finland combined celebrating the hundredth anniversary of its independence and its chairmanship of the Arctic Council by organizing an international arctic research expedition (Arctic 100) to increase international cooperation and strengthen understanding of the Arctic region. The Arctic 100 expedition was conducted from the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica. Nordica sailed through the Northwest Passage this past summer departing Vancouver on July 5, steaming 10,000 nautical miles and arriving in Nuuk, Greenland on July 29, 2017, 24 days later. It broke the record for the fastest Northwest Passage crossing by one day.

Nordica’s voyage was the earliest a vessel has been able to transit the Northwest Passage in an easterly direction. Previously, the vessel had made a transit of the NW Passage in 2015. Both the Finnish vessel and the Arctic 100 expedition were big on capability and represented a new approach utilizing commercial icebreakers for important arctic scientific and oceanographic research. Most importantly, the invited Associated Press journalists were able to tell the story of a changing Arctic firsthand.

MSV Nordica

The vessel Nordica, built in 1994 in the Finnish shipyard Finnyards in Rauma, Finland, is a multipurpose icebreaker owned by state-owned Arctia Oy. The Finns have been producing icebreakers for over 125 years. Arctia provides icebreaking services to the Finnish government in the Baltic, and owns a fleet of seven modern icebreakers. It recently launched the first LNG powered icebreaker, Polaris. The company also engages in ice management, offshore work and oil spill response. Arctia pioneered the design and development of multipurpose icebreakers: when they are not engaged in icebreaking, they can be utilized in other marine operations, predominantly in offshore marine operations and marine construction. The goal was to find commercial work in the off-season. This in contrast to icebreaking in Canada where Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers work on a year-round basis: during the summer months in the Arctic, and escort icebreaking in the St. Lawrence River, Gulf of St Lawrence and east coast in support of commercial shipping during the winter months. Nordica, and sister ship Fennica, were used in support of Shell’s offshore Alaska hydrocarbon drilling program in the summer of 2015 that utilized both a drillship and offshore oil rig.

Unlike traditional icebreakers, Nordica is configured as offshore supply vessel (OSV) with a large open aft deck that can have many configurations and cargoes depending on the specific project and mission. It can accommodate 48 passengers and 29 crew. The vessel has dynamic positioning capability, and has DNV Polar 10 ice classification, which allows for mostly unlimited Arctic operations.

Nordica is powered by a diesel-electric propulsion system with four main generators, and is propelled by two  Z-drive azimuth thrusters and three variable pitch bow thrusters, which allow for increased maneuvering capability during ice escort and precise dynamic positioning.

For offshore construction projects, Nordica is equipped with a crane capable of lifting 30 tonnes at a radius of 32 metres or 160 tonnes at 9 metres. She also has a smaller crane capable of lifting 5 tonnes at 15 metres. The vessel can also be equipped with a 120-ton A-frame for trenching machines and ploughs.

No Finnish vessel is without a sauna and swimming pool. Nordica has excellent accommodations and work spaces for researchers, and ample room for research facilities onboard. The ship also has a helideck forward of the bridge.

The Arctic 100 Expedition

The goal of this expedition was to showcase Arctic research, making use of commercial assets, in a collaborative setting. “Icebreaker-assisted exploration in the Arctic region requires resources and international cooperation. We want to enable this work by offering capable icebreakers and know-how for shared use by the researcher community,” says Eero Hokkanen, Communications Manager of Arctia, who went on to say “Arctia’s icebreaker will serve as a platform for various research activities and there is space for up to 70 researchers. The deck space can be used for research containers and equipment. Lifting appliances provide an opportunity for various equipment to be operated both on and off the vessel. Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) units can also be used. Research infrastructure like mobile labs can be set up in cabins and elsewhere inside the icebreaker. Icebreakers also have the capabilities needed to escort and assist ice-strengthened research vessels in Arctic waters.”

The expedition highlighted the effects of climate change in the Arctic region, and included a variety of international researchers, representatives of the Canadian and US Coast Guard’s. Nordica had onboard two ice navigators from Canada’s Martech Polar Consulting Ltd., Captain Duke Snider and Rear Admiral (retired) Nigel Greenwood. All reports indicated a highly successful research mission. The Arctic 100 expedition proved beyond a doubt that the Finnish model using commercial icebreakers is well suited to oceanographic research in Arctic waters.

Chair of the Arctic Council

Finland took over the Chairmanship from the United States for a two-year term which commenced at the Arctic Council members’ First Minister Conference held in Fairbanks Alaska on May 11, 2017. As Chair of the Arctic Council, Finland will also engage in close cooperation with two new entities: the Arctic Economic Council and the Arctic Coast Guard Forum. The Chair of the Arctic Economic Council, Tero Varauste, is also President of Arctia.

The member states of the Arctic Council are Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Russia, the United States and Canada. Leaders from six indigenous organizations are members, along with the indigenous people of northern Finland, Saami. It is important to note that Finland, along with Canada, was instrumental in the development of the Arctic Council twenty years earlier. As Arctic issues have grown in complexity, so has the work and breath of the Arctic Council.

The Finnish government has stated that: “The key objective for Finland is to strengthen Arctic cooperation and secure its continuity, at the highest political level. During the two-year term, Finland will emphasize the implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change and the UN sustainable development goals (SDGs) in Arctic cooperation.” This was further emphasized at the May 2017 First Ministers meeting where Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini stated: “Climate change proceeds rapidly in the Arctic, and we need to continue the successful work of the Council.”

Importantly, as the Arctic 100 expedition has indicated, and the Finnish government has formally stated, “The Arctic Council’s Chairmanship provides an opportunity for Finland to consolidate its Arctic image and to make Finnish expertise in operating in cold conditions better known”.

The four stated priorities for the Finnish Arctic Council Chairmanship’s two years are: environmental protection, connectivity, meteorological cooperation and education.

At the May 2017 meeting of First Ministers the Fairbanks Declaration was also signed, which reviewed the work of the Council during the outgoing U.S. Chairmanship and provides guidance for the Council’s work during the incoming Finnish Chairmanship. In addition, the Arctic Council nations signed the third binding agreement negotiated under the auspices of the Arctic Council, the “Agreement on Enhancing International Arctic Scientific Cooperation”, which will facilitate entry and exit of people, equipment and material to research infrastructure and research areas. The latter agreement seeks to enhance circumpolar cooperation to advance scientific knowledge of the Arctic.

The Arctic Council’s Foreign Ministers meeting takes place every two years, with the next scheduled for 2019. Finland’s Prime Minister in 2016 had indicated pushing for a summit between the United States and Russia on Arctic issues. Finland, given its shared border, its long history of working with Russia and its deep understanding of how Russia views its Arctic interests, is arguably well-suited to act as host to such a meeting which might or might not be within the auspices of Arctic Council.

Finland, like Canada, is an Arctic nation. Given its lengthy experience in the Arctic region and having witnessed the impacts of climate change, Finland is uniquely positioned to play a critical role in the future of the Arctic Council during its chairmanship and beyond. There are many challenges with respect to Arctic marine issues, all of which requiring collaborative oceanographic research to understand the changes and their impacts in the rapidly warming region. Finns like to get things done, and Finland is poised to provide a key leadership role in the global Arctic as Chair of the Arctic Council. Finland has committed significant political and economic resources to make this a reality.

K. Joseph Spears has a long-standing interest in the work of the Arctic Council and Finland’s approach to icebreaking. He attended onboard the MSV Nordica in Vancouver harbor prior to its departure in July 2017. Joe can be reached at joe.hbmg2@gmail.com