In the Melting Arctic, a Harrowing Account from a Stranded Ship
On the second day of a U.S. National Science Foundation-sponsored expedition to the Arctic, we were sitting in the presentation room of the 364-foot Russian cruise ship, Akademik Ioffe, about 45 miles north of the Inuit village of Kugaaruk. We were learning how to hop in and out of one of the Zodiacs that were to periodically take us to shore and on the water over the next three weeks to study how climate change has influenced the waters of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.
For me and the group of scientists from the University of Rhode Island’s Northwest Passage Project whom I was accompanying, this Russian research-cruise ship, with 102 passengers and 24 crew members on board, was a fallback vessel after two ships that had been previously contracted pulled out on short notice.
As the briefing transitioned into ways of avoiding a dangerous polar bear encounter, the Akademik Ioffe suddenly grounded to a violent halt. I knew that we were in a very remote area of the Gulf of Boothia in Canada’s central Arctic, and I knew the danger we were in if the hull of the ship had been breached in a serious way.
Dave Sinclair, expedition leader for the approximately 60 tourists on board, did his best to calm us by attributing the loud bangs to the sound of the ship hitting some ice. There was no breach of the hull, he told us minutes after he had been briefed by the Russian captain. We were not taking on water. The thing to do, he advised, was to go to our cabins and wait for instructions.
Heading up the stairs, I could see that the ship listed to one side, and I suspected that things were worse than we were being told. Members of the Russian crew were running around with life jackets on. Some were heading to the dining room to seal the windows shut. Others were climbing the stairs to man the lifeboats. The seas were relatively calm, but the boat was rocking back and forth, making grinding noises as the captain tried unsuccessfully to reverse the main propulsion and deploy the engine thrusters to power us off the shoal we were sitting on.
Rumors – of diesel spilling into the ocean, of a hole in the hull, of an icebreaker being on its way – spread quickly, as the hours on the shoal passed. The captain wasn’t communicating with us directly. What little information was offered came from Sinclair, who did wonders calming everyone’s nerves even though he had almost no idea what was going to happen.
Fortunately, the Russian sister ship, Akademik Sergey Vavilov, came to the rescue, as it happened to be in the area due to changes in its routing. Still, it was a 16-hour wait before it arrived, and another 15 hours for it to take us back to Kugaaruk (population 933) where we were to await planes that were being sent to take us home.
We had been extremely lucky. Had the weather not worked in our favor and had there been thick ice such as the kind we had sailed through hours earlier, it could have ended up far worse.
Powerful winds could have spun us around on that rock, possibly ripping a hole into the hull that might have been far bigger than the one that was presumably taking in the water we saw being pumped out of the ship. Thick ice grinding up against the ship would have made it almost impossible to get everyone off into lifeboats. It could have perforated the fuel tanks, worsening what appeared to be a plume of hydrocarbons floating on the surface alongside the ship. The Canadian Coast Guard later reported no sign of a spill.
I had warned about a scenario like this in a 2016 article on Yale Environment 360 and in my book Future Arctic: Field Notes from A World On The Edge. As the Arctic warms and previously ice-bound areas of the Arctic Ocean continue to open up, ship traffic is expected to keep increasing. But the absence of nautical charts for the region, the uncertainties of how rapidly ice is melting, and the lack of rescue capabilities in these remote waters all create big risks for these vessels.
Only 10 percent of the Arctic Ocean in Canada, and less than 2 percent of the Arctic Ocean in United States’ waters, is charted. Only 25 percent of the Canadian nautical charts are deemed to be good. Some of the U.S. charts go back to the days of Captains Cook and Vancouver and the time when the Russians owned Alaska.
Quick rescues in the North American Arctic are virtually impossible because there are no ports in Arctic Canada or Alaska, and icebreakers are few and far between. The United States, for example, has just one heavy icebreaker in operation in the region. Although Canada has a few more, most of those are well on the road to being decommissioned. It’s virtually impossible for them not to be many hours, if not days, away from a ship in distress in an area spanning 1.7 million square miles.
It took nine hours for a Hercules aircraft to fly in from the Canadian National Defence Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Trenton, Ontario, to our grounded ship, 12 hours for another smaller defense plane to come in from Winnipeg and 20 hours for a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter to arrive. Although a Coast Guard official communicated that the icebreaker Amundsen was on hand when we disembarked, we never saw it.
Arctic shipping accidents such as this have happened several times before, most notably in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez, grounded off the coast of Alaska, and in 2012 when the drilling ship Kulluk grounded near Ocean Bay, Sitkalidak Island, Alaska. Fortunately, none of the 143,000 gallons of low-sulfur diesel oil and 12,000 gallons of other petroleum products spilled out of the Kulluk. The Exxon Valdez, of course, was another story. The resulting spill, the worst in U.S. history, polluted over 1,100 miles of non-continuous coastline in Alaska, making it the largest oil spill to date in U.S. waters.
An environmental disaster in the Canadian Artic almost occurred in 2012 when the fuel tanker Nanny ran aground on a shoal near Baker Lake. It was the fifth grounding that had taken place since 2007 in an area where marine investigators say there is little margin for error.
The burgeoning polar cruise industry has also had its share of troubles. In August 1996, the Hanseatic ran aground in the Canadian Arctic, piercing two of the ship’s fuel reservoirs. All 153 passengers were evacuated by helicopter. In 2010, the Clipper Adventurer ran into shoal in Coronation Gulf. The 128 passengers and 69 crew members were rescued. In both cases, favorable weather and ice conditions prevented a disaster, just as it did in our case.
Although a Canadian Coast Guard spokesperson said there had been no reports of environmental damage from the grounding of the Akademik Ioffe, we could see an oily sheen covering the waters around the ship. Whether it was simply chemicals in the bilge water that was being pumped out, we couldn’t say. This is illegal in Alaskan waters, but is perfectly legal in the Canadian Arctic.
There will inevitably be more accidents if nothing is done to address the challenges associated with future shipping in the Arctic.
The rapid decline of Arctic sea ice is presenting cruise and cargo shipping companies with even more commercial opportunities. The seasonally ice-free ocean around Svalbard in Norway has been popular with cruise ships for the better part of two decades. The number of cruise voyages in the Canadian Arctic has more than doubled between 2005 and 2017. Exploitation of the Arctic’s resources will further increase ship traffic, as start-up mines such as Baffinland at Mary River on the north end of Baffin Island in Canada’s Arctic are planning or already using ships to move their ore to market.
As for the cruise ships, most are relatively small like the one we were on. But in 2016, Crystal Cruise’s luxury cruise ship – the Crystal Serenity – may have been a sign of what’s to come when it transported 1,000 guests and 600 crew members through the Northwest Passage.
The absence of charts and ports and the shortage of icebreakers is not the only deficiency that is portending future disasters.
In Canada and Alaska, cruise ships such as the Akademik Ioffe do not have to be equipped with forward-looking multi-beam sonar with Bluetooth, which gives the ship’s pilot a wide-angle, 120-degree, port-starboard view of the seafloor and water column. Had our ship been equipped with this relatively inexpensive technology, I was told by two experts who asked not to be identified, the master would likely have spotted the shoal soon enough for the ship to be slowed and steered away from the danger.
Sea ice is still a problem, perhaps even more so as it continues to recede. Scientists Alexandra Jahn and her colleagues made this point recently when they concluded that the increasingly chaotic nature of the climate system in the Arctic is making it difficult to predict how sea ice is going to behave, as it did this summer. Two cruise expeditions canceled their voyages because of the chaotic ice conditions. Our cruise plan was changed at the last minute because ice prevented our ship from getting into the original starting point at Resolute Bay on Cornwallis Island. We launched instead from Kugaaruk, which is several hundred miles south of the original departure point. Sinclair advised at the outset that our routing might change every nine hours or so depending on how the ice was behaving.
It was the second year in a row that the Arctic experienced these uncertain ice conditions. In 2017, a scientific expedition to Hudson Bay had to be canceled because of massive amounts of sea ice streaming south from the High Arctic. A Canadian icebreaker was needed to be on standby in case of emergencies off the coast of Newfoundland and the Maritime provinces. A Canadian Coast Guard official explained at the time that the ice conditions were more treacherous than any seen before.
The changing ice conditions are also making it more difficult to rely on climatological technology to predict day-to-day and seasonal environmental variability in the region. According to the World Meteorological Association, which is one of the organizations involved in the Year of Polar Prediction (2017-2019), the Arctic and Antarctic are the world’s most poorly observed regions when it comes to meteorology. Ship captains cannot rely on forecasts that may or may not predict thick fog or powerful storms days in advance.
In the meantime, emergency response systems are not going to get much better. Russia currently has 41 icebreakers and several new ones in construction. By way of comparison, the U.S. has just one heavy icebreaker in operation in the Arctic, the Polar Star. But the U.S. doubts that the Polar Star will make it to 2023, when it is scheduled to be decommissioned. In the meantime, the Coast Guard is facing a $750 million cut to its budget, part of a larger plan by the Trump administration to find $5.2 billion for stronger border and immigration controls. That likely means that plans for a new icebreaker will be on indefinite hold.
Canada will soon be getting a new heavy icebreaker and ice-capable patrol ships. But once the new icebreaker comes on stream, one or more of the others are likely to be decommissioned. Plans for constructing an Arctic port at Nanisivik on Baffin Island continue to be advance slowly.
When we finally got to Kugaaruk, the winds had calmed, the clouds had cleared, and the temperatures had risen to a level that made the short Zodiac ride to shore a pleasant one. The Inuit and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were there to help us unload and to transport those who needed a ride to the gravel airstrip. All the passengers were appreciative, happy to be getting home soon. Few seemed to realize just how close they had come to serious harm.