Shipping expert claims more Arctic experience can increase safety



Escalating Arctic traffic could help provide the know-how for safer shipping in the region, a former UK coastguard chief told the House of Lords this week.

Addressing the UK Arctic Committee, Rod Johnson said: “Because the environment is so harsh and the distances are so huge, I think that without increasing the tempo of trade internationally, it will take longer to uncover those lessons that we need to learn.

“The difficult Arctic conditions have traditionally forged a sense of shared effort amongst the nations but it is not structured in a particular way.”

Johnson was speaking at the second meeting of the committee on Tuesday, a few weeks after executives from two major players in the Arctic — Fednav and SCF Group (Sovcomflot) — told the Lords that regional traffic was increasing but would not replace more traditional routes.

The Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement, signed in 2011, has been exercised twice but still needs time to mature, the former coastguard chief said. Suggesting an example of safety measures in the Arctic, Johnson said cruiseships should travel in pairs. “There is no infrastructure in the Arctic so the nearest refuge would be the ship next door. However, life-saving appliances fitted in passengerships are designed to get people off and not to put them back on,” he said. The committee heard that individual states need to share information more liberally.

Rear admiral Tom Karsten, deputy chief executive of the UK Hydrographic Office, said: “Some parts are adequately covered and some are not. “So we rely on coastal charts by coastal nations, something that primarily refers to Russia and Canada.”

The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is relatively well chartered in comparison to Canada’s Northwest passage, which is full of dangers, according to Karsten.

He also said official bodies should engage more with commercial operators in the Arctic in order to get better access to useful data. Sovcomflot is working on some huge oil-and-gas projects in the Arctic, where significant reserves are believed to remain undiscovered.

Addressing persistent concerns of a major oil spill, Johnson said: “Skimming is not possible in icy water. Added to that, oil is very temperature-sensitive and it becomes viscous when it touches cold water. “The simplest advice is do not have a spill.”