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Maritime casualties in the High North


As noted in the white paper on Norway's Arctic policy (the High North Report), maritime activities in the High North are expected to increase as a result of improved accessibility resulting from melting sea-ice, the high potential for increased commercial exploitation of marine and offshore resources, and successful marketing of the Arctic as a tourist destination. With increased activities comes an increased risk of accidents.

The remoteness, cold temperatures and vulnerability of the environment causes challenges for emergency response including search and rescue (SAR), pollution prevention and clean-up measures and finally salvage and wreck removal. These additional risks have to be taken into account by those operating in the area.

From a Norwegian perspective, the High North encompasses the Northern part of mainland Norway including its coastal areas and territorial sea, Svalbard and the vast Northern sea. While tourists are attracted to the area for its stunning landscapes, mesmerising northern lights and midnight sun, fishing is a key livelihood, and commercial shipping is also on the increase. The sea is known for rough winter storms, and in the northern-most Arctic area shipping activities are also exposed to ice throughout the year. These conditions create particular challenges should an accident occur.

Preparedness agreements, exercises and research

While the High North has not seen any major casualties thus far, a number of steps are being taken to achieve a higher level of preparedness in face of the risk of accidents resulting from increased shipping activities. Regional cooperation on SAR, pollution control and clean-up is secured through the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic and the Agreement on Cooperation on Marine Oil Pollution Preparedness and Response in the Arctic, both of which have been negotiation between the members of the Arctic Council. Bilateral agreements have also been entered into between Norway and Russia.

Several exercises have been undertaken as training for those involved in search and rescue operations and pollution response. The Barents Rescue is arranged every third year with participants from Norway, Russia, Finland and Sweden. Another example is the SARex and SARex Svalbard exercises which has involved academia, official authorities, material and equipment suppliers, service providers, and industry and public entities. The exercises test available equipment and existing procedures in full scale operations in order to give vital experience to those involved, and identify the challenges which still exist.

Significant research is also being made into safety at sea in the north, an interesting example being the NORDLAB test lab at the Nord University in Bodø where emergency response exercises can be conducted using crisis management tools and simulator technology to increase situational awareness and improve risk assessments.

While the covid-19 pandemic has put cruise activities on hold, it is expected that these will return, and likely increase post-pandemic. A major cruise ship casualty near Svalbard is a worst-case scenario. On 23 March 2019 the cruise ship "Viking Sky" suffered engine difficulties in bad weather near Hustadvika, off the coast of mainland Norway, but fortunately avoided grounding. While this incident did not take place in the high North, it turned the attention of the Norwegian authorities to the risk of a major cruise ship casualty, which in turn led to the establishment of the cruise committee. This committee has been tasked with drafting a report by December 2021 wherein they will identify and recommend specific measures to reduce risk related to cruise activities, taking into account the cost-benefit of the measures.

Increased technical requirements

The Norwegian authorities have recognised that the vastness of the seas, and hence the distance from the emergency services, which are primarily located on the mainland, mean that those operating in the area have to be prepared to help themselves. This fundamental fact was acknowledged in the adoption of the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (the Polar Code), which entered into force in 2017. The code sets out design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection requirements for ships operating in the waters surrounding the north and south poles. It must be expected that the technical requirements for ships operating in the High North will continue to develop with technological progress, since the primary response to a casualty in the High North in most instances will continue to be from those working onboard.

Emergency response and pollution

Each casualty is different, and the response to the casualty will vary depending on whether it involves a smaller fishing vessel or a cruise ship; if it occurs near mainland Norway or in the more remote areas near Svalbard. Should a casualty occur, the shipowner will of course activate its emergency procedure and inform their insurers.

From the authorities, the parties involved will largely be the same as those involved in a casualty occurring elsewhere along the Norwegian coast – the Norwegian Rescue Services will take lead on search and rescue, the Norwegian Coastal Administration will be responsible for coordinating the pollution response, the police will initiate a criminal investigation, and the Norwegian Safety Investigation Authority (NSIA) will perform a safety related investigation.

However, there are aspects of the initial response which may be different. Firstly, the Norwegian Civil Defence (NCD) is likely to be involved. While the NCD could become involved in major incident also further south, a major incident in the High North is likely to require air-borne resources, and the NCD operate several helicopters. Furthermore, since parts of the North are sparsely populated it is more challenging to mobilise the amount of voluntary civil resources needed for a clean-up operation. The NCD will therefore also contribute with manpower.

If the casualty occurs in the Svalbard archipelago or surrounding waters, the Governor of Svalbard will play an important decision-making role. The Governor is the Norwegian government’s highest-ranking representative in the area and acts as both the chief of police and county governor. The Governor is also responsible for the rescue service, and is the environmental protection authority for the area.

The shipowners and insurers normally also investigate the incident and provide support to the crew during other investigations, often with the assistance of external lawyers. Depending on where the casualty has occurred, particular attention needs to be paid to travel accessibility and communication challenges arising due to limited telecommunications and satellite cover above 72° North. While it will normally be beneficial to be onsite, there are an increasing number of options for gaining access to some of the information collected as part of a shipboard investigation remotely or through other channels. To the extent permitted by telecommunication cover, such options should be utilised to maximise the efficiency of the onsite attendance.


A significant oil spill in the Arctic could have a detrimental effect on this unique and sensitive environment. Cold temperatures impacts the viscosity of oil, and even though a ban on use of heavy fuel oils will help to protect the environment, current methods and equipment for removing oil from the sea is less efficient on alternative types of fuel. A clean-up operation is also more demanding for the people involved due to the cold temperatures. Conducting a full scale clean-up operation is accordingly likely to meet a number of both technical and operational challenges.

The shipowner has a legal duty to avoid or limit pollution. While technical requirements increases safety at sea, there is however normally little the crew can do once an incident has occurred. The Norwegian authorities will in all instances of major pollution declare a state action, which mean that they take control of the pollution response. In practice, the shipowner's duty to take action accordingly becomes secondary to the state-led operation. The decision to organise the pollution response as a state-led action has clear benefits in an Arctic response where there can be coordinated effort by trained services.

Wreck removal

Once the initial rescue operation has been completed, and if the vessel cannot be salved, a wreck removal operation may be required. There are particular considerations which need to be taken when performing wreck removal operations in remote areas as a result of drift ice, cold temperatures, remoteness and wild life (such as polar bears on Svalbard).

A recent example is the removal of the wreck of the fishing vessel "Northguider", which grounded in the Hinlopen Straits, Svalbard, in December 2018. An initial attempt at wreck removal was made during the summer season of 2019, but had to be postponed until the 2020 season partially due to difficult drift ice conditions. Ice forecasts and ice mitigating efforts were necessary to ensure the successful completion of the operation. The wreck was located far from a logistics base, which also created challenges related to supplies and crew changes.

In order to mitigate the challenges of a wreck removal operation in a remote area the particular challenges, such as ice delay and mobilisation, should be carefully identified and regulated in the wreck removal contract. Finally, a thorough risk assessment will help to identify the risks involved and provide guidance throughout the operation.

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Herman Steen
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