By Brian Dunn

The University of Manitoba is building the largest sea-ice research institute in the world in Churchill to detect the effects of oil spills in Arctic waters. The facility, called the Churchill Marine Observatory (CMO) & Network on Oil Spills in Ice-Covered Arctic Waters, is being headed by Feiyue Wang, Canada Research Chair in Arctic Environment Chemistry, University of Manitoba.

“We have been extremely lucky there has not been a major oil spill in the Arctic,” he said at the 12th Arctic Shipping Summit held in Montreal Feb. 21-22. “If one species is affected, it could impact the entire eco system.”

There has been a 90 per cent decline in older (over four years) ice between 1982-2017, while the mean thickness is down 65 per cent from 3.6 metres to 1.2 metre, during the same period, he added. And much remains unknown about oil-ice interaction, and the main reason why CMO is being built at a cost of $44 million is to observe a controlled oil spill in a pool of ice water. The facility is expected to be operational next December and will involve 170 partners from 16 countries. The observatory is also designed to generate scientific knowledge, develop effective technologies, and support decision-making for an evidence-based policy to reduce the risk of and response to oil spills in ice-covered Arctic waters, said Mr. Wang.

Improved access to the Arctic Ocean facilitates potential oil and gas development, since 13 per cent of the world’s undiscovered oil reserves are located in the Arctic, according to the United States Geological Survey, and increased exploration activities enhance the risk of oil spills in the area. “There are very few people that have knowledge of sea-ice dynamics and oil-spill technology. We are developing a comprehensive response model as well as highly-qualified personnel who will be next generation specific.”

Major components of CMO consist of an Oil-in-Sea-Ice Mesocosm (an outdoor experimental system that examines the natural environment under controlled conditions) with movable roofs, an environmental observatory along the main shipping corridor in Hudson Bay, a coastal vessel for field studies across Hudson Bay and a petroleum environmental research lab at the University of Manitoba.

CMO partners include eleven Canadian universities, eight federal departments and agencies, two indigenous communities, three industries (including shipper Groupe Desgagnés) and 17 international collaborators.

The Year of Polar Prediction (YOPP), which kicked off last May, is a ten-year initiative by the World Meteorological Organization to improve polar weather and sea ice forecasts. It involves 21 countries at both the North and South Poles. “Why is it important? It’s in our backyard and 113,000 people call it home. And 40 per cent of our land mass is in the Arctic,” noted Paul Pestieau, Environment and Climate Change Canada Coordinator, YOPP, Government of Canada. “It also builds on Canada’s leadership and investments and the anticipated increase in commercial ship transits.”

Some of the challenges for YOPP are that few Arctic forecasts are automated, forecasting is outpacing service delivery (the Coast Guard rarely gets all the available info) and the vetting of automated outputs is slow due to poor observations, said Mr. Pestieau. “We expect ice forecasts will be available over the internet like weather forecasts within the next five years. There is full daily coverage of Arctic ice on Radarsat, but it’s too much information for most mariners.”

All ice charts and iceberg charts are currently available on the Canadian Ice Service website. It won’t necessarily show the exact location of every iceberg, but will show the number of icebergs. Weather satellites will improve the info, said. Mr. Pestieau.

There is a need for improved sea ice data collection and recent agreements such as the Polar Code (which incorporates the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters) should improve cooperation, added Anita Parlow, Founder, A.L. Parlow & Associates, Washington, D.C.

“One year, a region could be ice free and not the next. Canadian law is far more stringent than the Polar Code. A major challenge is the lack of people with cold climate experience, especially on cruise ships. As sea ice melts, the development potential accelerates. China is building ships that are ice capable, so we expect to see a large increase in Arctic traffic.”

A Chinese research icebreaker transited the Northwest Passage last September which could pave the way for Chinese cargo vessels to sail the route on a regular basis, said University of Calgary professor Rob Huebert. It’s the first time a Chinese vessel has gone trough the Northwest Passage, while China has gained observer status at the Arctic Council, he noted.

Canada is not interested in blocking ships in Arctic waters, it just wants it done properly, suggested Suzanne Lalonde, professor of International Law, Université de Montréal. “Unfortunately, the U.S. regards the Northwest Passage as international waters. I believe in Canada’s legal position that those waters are ours.”

Canada is trying to develop Low Impact Marine Shipping Corridors (formerly Northern Marine Transportation Corridors) to strengthen the safety of marine navigation in the Arctic and to offer an efficient planning guide for future Arctic investments. It will also provide Ottawa with the framework needed to prioritize and deliver its programs and services, including nautical charts and products, aids to navigation, icebreaking services and marine safety regulations.

“Primary corridors capture 77 per cent of marine traffic. Everybody is on board with the consultation process,” said Ms. Lalonde. “The corridors will be implemented when the funding is available. Maybe the OPP (Oceans Protection Plan) will be the impetus needed to get the primary corridors initiative launched.”

Canada is always good at making announcements, but bad at following through, added Peter Pamel, Partner, Borden Ladner Gervais. He’s happy that money ($1.5 billion over five years) is finally being invested through the OPP. “The corridors are based historically where major traffic is going. But you can’t make them mandatory, because some resupply is done in remote communities.”

Transport Canada has introduced new Arctic Shipping Safety and Pollution Prevention Regulations which incorporate the Polar Code into Canada’s domestic legislation. “Basically, we’ve kept some Canadian regulations to go along with the implementation of the Polar Code,” said Mr. Pamel who discussed the Polar Code as a component of risk assessment.

The two main types of marine insurance are hull and machinery insurance and P & I insurance. In terms of risk distribution for ice damage, it could be shared between the two groups. Risk assessment could include physical risks to ship and crew, infrastructure risks or human risks due to a lack of training and experience of officers and crew.

The Polar Code outlines a list of potential hazards like ice, cold weather and navigational challenges that vessels must be aware of when operating in Arctic regions. It doesn’t really apply to big vessels that operate regularly in the north such as Fednav, but more for cruise ships or one offs like a ship picking up cargo at a northern mining site for a customer in Europe, Mr. Pamel suggested. The code essentially establishes a framework of regulations and standards for the safe operation of ships and enhanced protection of the polar environment. For insurers, uniform international rules and regulations are essential.

“You can check all the boxes, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your ship is seaworthy. Under the Polar Code, a ship can no longer pick up spot cargo in the Arctic without being Polar Code compliant. The effect will be more barriers to entry and it focuses one’s mind on elements relevant in remote environments,” concluded Mr. Pamel.

The transportation sector contributes 6.3 per cent to Canada’s GDP and marine transportation accounts for two per cent of that sector, according to Julie Gascon, Assistant Commissioner Central and Arctic Region Canadian Coast Guard. Up to seven million vessels travel through Canadian waters each year, with Arctic vessel traffic doubling in the last 40 years, led by ecotourism.

Part of the funding for the OPP will be used to support the removal of derelict and abandoned vessels and to implement regional response plans to improve oil spill preparedness. Towing kits will also be added to Coast Guard vessels and all icebreakers are undergoing retrofits which will add another 10-15 years of service.

Two icebreakers were equipped to collect modern hydrography during the 2017 Arctic navigation season. The plan is to have five equipped vessels by the 2019 season, said Ms. Gascon.

None of the eight Arctic countries, including Canada, has the capacity to handle a major oil spill on their own. That’s why international cooperation is paramount, according to Petter Meier, Deputy Director General, Norwegian Ministry of Transport and Communications. “Maritime traffic in the Arctic is on the rise. Approximately 80 per cent of all commercial maritime traffic in the Arctic takes place in Norwegian waters. By 2040, that traffic is expected to increase by 41 per cent.” Accidents will happen and there is a need for a robust preparedness and response system, added Mr. Meir and the choice of strategy and methods should be based on assessments of environmental impact. Some of those responses could include chemical dispersants for bunker oil, mechanical recovery or in-situ burning.

During questions at the end of the conference, it was suggested that the Marine Exchange of Alaska in Juneau, might be a good model for Canada to emulate. Established in 2000, the exchange’s five major areas of focus are providing vessel tracking service, regulatory compliance, maritime database and information, charts and publications and maritime career advocacy.