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A theoretical test of the Search and Rescue (SAR) agreement reached in Nuuk in 2011 has revealed that the plan is not enough to handle a major shipwreck.
The conclusion was presented by Marc Jacobsen, a Danish member of the Arctic Institute, a Washington, DC-based NGO, during the Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø, Norway, last month.
Jacobsen’s scenario involved the fictional wreck of the cruise liner Costa Deliziosa off the coast of the town of Ilulissat, in western Greenland, near the Unesco-listed Icefjord.
Jacobsen said he had been inspired by the Costa Concordia, which ran aground near the island of Giglio, northwest of Rome, in January 2012. Thirty-two passengers died in the accident, and the wreck has still not been removed.
Jacobsen’s scenario has the slightly smaller Costa Deliziosa crash into an iceberg in Disko Bay, off Ilulissat, tearing a 50 metre hole in the hull below the waterline. On board are 2,828 passengers – 80 percent of whom are over 55 – and a crew of 1,100.
The accident takes place at night during the summer. Wind conditions are calm and the sea is covered by 10 to 40 percent open drift ice.
Following the wreck, 55 people are missing and there are several hundred casualties that need to be transported to hospitals in Nuuk, Iceland or Canada for treatment.
Jacobsen described the transport of those requiring treatment as “extremely comprehensive, very time consuming and therefore very likely leave thousands of passengers behind in Ilulissat”, a town of 4,500 inhabitants.
The results of the mock accident revealed, according to Jacobsen, that the current SAR plan is inadequate to handle a cruise ship with several thousand aboard sinking in Arctic waters.
Although there are several international agreements on SAR in the Arctic, the massive distances in the Arctic make effective disaster response difficult if not impossible.
National authorities and the International Marine Organisation (IMO) are looking into ways to improve safety. One suggestion is to have ships sail through the Arctic in convoys, but VisitGreenland, a tourism promotion board, said such a requirement would result in the death of cruise tourism in Greenland.
The IMO is developing the Polar Code is, which is due to be finalised by the end of this year and in place as early as 2016. The code would require that all vessels operating in polar waters must meet certain minimum security requirements.
Critics of the version of the code released this month said that the requirements are not tough enough.
Although Jacobsen’s scenario was a mock up, it is based in reality. The Costa Deliziosa sailed through ice on the way to Ilulissat as recently as 2011.
“We have found it necessary to collect this data as a basis for a debate that will hopefully lead to political action,” Jacobsen said. “At the same time, local players may want to know more about their neighbour’s capabilities.”
The Arctic Institute report about the infrastructure in the Arctic, which contains Jacobsen's cruise-liner scenario, will be free to download from the Arctic Institute’s website in May.
The Arctic Institute is staffed by 16 volunteer European and American Arctic policy scholars.