The Buzz

Being Safer in the Arctic

In September, the Crystal Serenity cruise ship – bound from Anchorage to New York – completed its historic voyage through the Northwest Passage along Canada's northern rim. This journey made headlines because it is the first tourist vessel to traverse the Arctic route that has claimed the lives of several and imperiled dozens of other adventurers. 

This voyage was enabled by record breaking sea ice melt in the Arctic Ocean. Ocean access during summertime, generally speaking, has been increasing since the 1970s, both with respect to area of open water and duration of melt each year. However, this voyage was made possible by Crystal Cruises' meticulous safety preparation that can fall back on the U.S. and Canadian search and rescue (SAR) systems.

In the event that the U.S. SAR system would have to be tested, what is there to fall back on? Actually, a surprising amount. The Coast Guard maintains a seasonal presence in the Arctic, with one cutter and two helicopters stationed north of the Arctic Circle. Also in the Arctic, the North Slope Borough SAR, a highly capable Native Alaskan organization based in Barrow, and commercial entities like Crowley Marine can provide assets, personnel, and regional expertise. Farther to the south, the high prevalence of Department of Defense assets in Alaska can be requested to augment capability, including the Combat Search and Rescue specialists within the Alaska Air National Guard. Lastly, international SAR support from Canada, Russia, or Denmark can further strengthen response capabilities. 

Clearly, there is a safety net. But there are seams that could fail. The SAR system is not designed to coordinate large-scale civilian rescue efforts in the vast, remote, and perilous Arctic region. Of late, the Arctic appears more and more accessible as climate change, technology, and public interest spur possibilities. Although more accessible than it once was, it is in truth still a very formidable place to journey with unpredictable conditions, limited infrastructure and communications, and long distances to go for – or provide – help. The Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, in partnership with native organizations, do their best to prepare to keep people in the U.S. Arctic safe, but a SAR emergency involving  a cruise ship, or a downed aircraft, could very possible stress the system beyond its capacity to save lives. 

Here's why. The Arctic is very large and very cold. Long distances lead to long response times, extreme environmental conditions shorten survival times, and unpredictable weather (often the genesis of accidents in the first place) can prevent SAR responders from reaching the scene of an accident. The lack of infrastructure in the Arctic further confounds these challenges. In this environment, people in distress need to be supported in-place, to stave off loss of life or limb until rescue assets eventually arrive.

How can the Arctic be made safer for tourists and casual adventurers? The gate has already been opened; Crystal Cruises is the first, but will probably not be the last. More and more airlines fly routes over the Arctic, and more vulnerable twin engine planes are now also eligible to take the route. The United States has many priorities, at home and abroad, but some modest investments and planning measures can make a substantial difference for U.S. Arctic SAR, which is not only a practical necessity, but is also an international commitment the U.S. signed on to through efforts by the Arctic Council. 

First, the United States could bolster its ability to quickly provide resources to support people in distress in the Arctic. The capability to rescue people is sufficient, but it can take days for the appropriate ships, planes, or helicopters to arrive. In the interim, relatively inexpensive packages of survival resources (medical, food, shelter, warm clothing) either pre-stationed in the Arctic, or delivered via a cargo plane in a few hours, could provide critical assistance to improve the likelihood of survival.

Second, the current safety net is patchworked and the seams need reinforcing. Since no one organization has the capability or capacity to provide this type of SAR response on its own, mission success hinges on the ability to cohesively integrate the capabilities of multiple organizations. Exercising with organizations that may be called to participate improves overall preparedness for challenging Arctic SAR operations. In August, the U.S. hosted Arctic Chinook, a live SAR exercise with participation from Canada and other Arctic nations. This is big a step in the right direction, but the more likely SAR partners that need to be included (in addition to the U.S. Air Force and Coast Guard) are commercial entities on the North Slope, the North Slope Borough SAR, and the U.S. Army. Tightening these seams would be a low-cost method of improving preparedness.

Some may argue that the Arctic should not be a priority. There are many other important problems and many more lives at stake elsewhere in the world. Preparing for Arctic SAR, however, represents a tractable problem that at its core is about the government's responsibility to its people. A few extra resources can make a big difference in Arctic SAR preparedness. The key is to prepare before disaster strikes, not wait for a cruise ship to hit a hidden iceberg before making a few common-sense investments.

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