Titanic Threats Still Lurk Today


Published Apr 21, 2015 9:03 PM by The Maritime Executive

Op-Ed by Albert Buixadé Farré

The Titanic sank 103 years ago last week. A disaster of comparable proportions may happen again. With sea ice melting, Arctic shipping is on the rise, driven by profit, unencumbered by strict regulations and unsupported by critical infrastructure. Like that fateful iceberg a century ago, there are more dangers today lurking in the Arctic than meet the eye. 

With the Arctic Council’s highest meeting just a few days away, this anniversary serves as a reminder to further invest and cooperate for a safe development of the Arctic.

Cruise ships today travel far beyond the choppy waters of the North Atlantic where more than 1,500 souls met their doom. Heightened seasonal shrinking of the ice cap since the early 2000s propels cruise ships and tourists farther north than ever before. Just three years ago Costa Concordia capsized and sank in the tranquil and mature Mediterranean; far worse can be expected in the unforgiving and underdeveloped polar frontier.

For cargo shipping, the present commercial lure lies in matching the onshore and offshore natural wealth of the Arctic with the resource voracity of the rising economies of Asia. Mining, drilling, and shipping in the Arctic are already a growing reality. 

The current activity is mostly concentrated throughout the Northeast Passage, mostly following Russia’s shores, as it is the most practicable of the Arctic routes. The consequences of a sinking cargo ship not only will threaten the crew but also the environment; oil spills are far too frequent elsewhere, and such occurrences will be even further exacerbated in the arduous Arctic conditions.

The Northeast Passage also holds the promise to provide a more direct transoceanic avenue to connect Northeast Asia with Europe, which so far only a few dozen cargo ships have ventured to cross since 2009. The passage, albeit being 30 percent shorter than the Suez Canal alternative, is hindered by a lack of supporting infrastructure including search and rescue (SAR), ports, icebreakers and satellite broadband communications.

For safety to prevail and maritime commerce to succeed in the Arctic, both capable ships and robust onshore support are needed. Coastal states, and in particular Russia, should also be ready to provide a quick response when misfortune strikes.

Arctic search-and-rescue capabilities are inadequate. In 1979, countries worldwide agreed to divide the world’s oceans into areas of responsibility for aiding mariners in peril on the high seas, well beyond each country’s 12 nautical miles of territorial waters. The Arctic Ocean was left out of that agreement; nobody was expecting then that an international trading route could develop in those inhospitable, frozen waters. It was only in 2011 that Arctic countries apportioned their SAR responsibilities in the polar region.

Now, on paper, a vessel in distress knows which coast guard to call for help. But it is far from clear that help will arrive in time. Russia is an important actor in the Arctic and the primary nation responsible for coming to the rescue of ships along the Northeast Passage. While Moscow has announced plans to expand its SAR infrastructure, its current capabilities are spread thin.

Spurred by the Titanic tragedy, governance and safety of international shipping has greatly improved. The International Maritime Organization has long been the authority for setting global standards for ship construction, operation and safety. However, it was not until late last year that the Polar Code was enacted to specifically account for the unique challenges of Arctic and Antarctic waters. 

The code is scheduled to come into force in 2017. These regulations are a leap forward in Arctic safety and environmental protection, but they are a product of compromise and fall short on imposing stricter requirements on ice-strengthened hulls, speed limits and the structural stability of vessels.

Long-distance shipping has a millennia-old history. At the same time, it was not until the beginning of this century that the dream of a new international commercial route through the Northeast Passage appeared to lie within grasp. 

However, ice melting alone will not open up the Arctic to safe and profitable operations. Ships insufficiently prepared for the tougher Arctic conditions are at greater danger, and limited and distant support and SAR capabilities can compound an accident into a tragedy.

In the decades ahead, ice melting will not lead to ice-free waters, but rather waters with free-floating ice that still pose dangers to navigation. Harsh weather conditions and the immutable realities of pitch-dark winter days and dangerously shallow coastal waters, add to the difficulty of operating a ship and rescuing it.

Coastal states should invest more, reward privately launched solutions and cooperate to establish streamlined and sensible regulations. The U.S. and Russia, together with the other Arctic states, founded the Arctic Council as a forum to develop joint policies and solutions. The upcoming Ministerial meeting of the Council on April 24-25 affords a new opportunity to strengthen the responsible stewardship of the Arctic.

On that fateful night in April over a century ago, nature trumped human audacity. Accidents will always happen, and hostile environments will exacerbate them. Growing Arctic activity essentially assures future accidents. How often and how grave they will be depend on how governance, infrastructure and sensible practices continue to develop. – MarEx

Albert Buixadé Farré is the lead author of ‘Commercial Arctic Shipping Through the Northeast Passage: Routes, Resources, Governance, Technology, and Infrastructure’ (Polar Geography, 2014) 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.