November 15, 2014 – OPINION: As shipping redefines the Arctic, the US should should show modern leadership by proposing that Heavy Fuel Oil be phased out of use in arctic waters. Pictured on the left is The SS Manhattan on its 1969 journey from Pennsylvania through the Northwest Passage to Alaska and then back to New York. Courtesy Merritt Helfferich; Merritt Helfferich and Kevin Harun write:
Forty-five years ago this July, the world watched in awe as the first man walked on the moon. The Apollo 11 voyage redefined where man could travel. That same summer, I had the good fortune to be part of another voyage that challenged the known limits of human transport.
In August of 1969, I boarded the icebreaking tanker the SS Manhattan in Halifax bound for the Northwest Passage.
Accompanied by both the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard, our massive ship broke through the Arctic Ocean’s icebound passages reaching Alaska’s newly discovered oil field at Prudhoe Bay. Humble Oil was attempting to determine whether oil could be transported by icebreaking tanker instead of by a pipeline, a much more expensive alternative.
Onboard were experienced ice navigators, ship builders and journalists from all the top media. The world was transfixed as their reports documented our progress through this strange world of ice and polar bears. When the ship returned to New York City Harbor on Nov. 12, it was not only the first commercial vessel to complete a transit of the Northwest Passage, but the first to do so in both directions.
In the short time since that summer of 1969, ice cover on the Arctic Ocean has shrunk considerably, making commercial ship passage along the Arctic coasts of North America and other polar nations increasingly feasible. In 2013, 18 vessels transited the Northwest Passage while there were over 400 transits of the Bering Strait, the choke-point between Alaska and Russia which guards the entrance to the Arctic Ocean.
Shippers stand to save time and costs as these northern routes considerably shorten the distance for moving goods between Asia and Europe. Arctic industrialization will likely follow as shipping makes transporting resources extracted from the Arctic feasible. In another first, this summer a shipment of ore mined in northern Quebec transited the Northwest Passage for delivery to China.
Essentially, a new ocean is opening to shipping in one of the world’s most extreme, remote, and sensitive environments. This profound change is testing the limits of current safe shipping.
In many ways, much about the Arctic still remains unknown and risky. Navigational charts still lack detail. Communications can be spotty. Hurricane force winds are not uncommon. Rescue response is often based hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. And, of course, avoiding the changing ice remains an issue. International shippers, insurers, mariners, and, most of all, Arctic communities all share an interest in preventing potentially catastrophic damage to vessels and subsequently to Arctic waters and wildlife.
At risk are arctic fish and wildlife and the coastal communities which rely on them. Our northern waters still support a fantastic array of wildlife including walrus, polar bears, whales, “ice” seals, and millions of seabirds. Likewise, thousands of indigenous people living along these Arctic coasts continue to rely on traditional hunting and fishing for most of their food. These northern people and arctic creatures often depend on both the ice and the same ice-free passages now targeted by shippers.
In recognition of these extraordinary risks, the United Nations has required that a special Polar Code be written to oversee international shipping in both Arctic and Antarctic waters. Next week, the UN’s International Maritime Organization will meet in London. After decades of negotiation, this body is expected to take binding votes on rules for Arctic shipping under the Polar Code.
Much has already been accomplished. Strong rules have been put in place to limit dumping pollutants in pristine, Arctic waters. Imperatives to avoid striking or disturbing marine mammals are under consideration.
But the greatest risks remain unaddressed.
The Arctic Council, a consortium of nations with Arctic interests to be chaired next year by the United States, conducted an intensive assessment of Arctic shipping. The Council identified a spill of heavy fuel oil as the most significant threat posed by Arctic shipping.
Arctic wildlife populations often highly concentrate in ice-free waters where a spill of heavy fuel oil could threaten entire populations. In virtually all remote polar waters, we are currently unable to respond to an oil spill. In recognition of this extreme threat, heavy fuel oil has already been banned by the Polar Code for Antarctic waters.
The United States has a long history when it comes to Arctic shipping. Most presidents sit in the Oval Office at the Resolute desk. The desk, made from wood salvaged from the British ship the Resolute, was a gift from Queen Victoria in thanks for saving the ship after it was trapped in Arctic ice in 1845 during the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.
The Polar Code presents a current opportunity for Arctic leadership. As shipping redefines the Arctic, the United States should continue to support protective provisions already outlined for the Polar Code. But we should show modern leadership by further proposing that heavy fuel oil be phased out of use in Arctic waters.
Merritt Helfferich worked with the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute when he sailed on the SS Manhattan’s historic icebreaking voyage. He has conducted research in both Antarctica and the Arctic. He lives in Fairbanks. Kevin Harun is Arctic director for Pacific Environment, an organization founded to advocate for the living environment of the Pacific Rim. He has United Nations consultative status to participate in the Polar Code.