The Arctic is changing before our eyes, faster than anyone anticipated. While a report on the state of the oceans and cryosphere by the International Panel on Climate Change is expected in September 2019 and will offer the most comprehensive picture of the Polar Regions, until its completion there are plenty of examples of the climate crisis happening at the Earth’s poles.
As noted by our Secretary of State at the Arctic Council, even if he refrained from acknowledging why, the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic coast and the Northwest Passage may offer faster routes from European markets to Asian ones. Beyond transit, up to 13 percent of the world’s remaining oil and 30 percent of its natural gas, along with considerable mineral resources, and a bounty of commercial fish species, are thought to exist in the Arctic. All of which will require ships to access these resources, carry the goods, or fish for them.
Given the potential environmental impacts and the danger to human life in these harsh conditions, Arctic shipping needs better rules and practices in place before polar waters shipping begins in earnest. In 2017, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) took a strong first step with the entry into force of the “Polar Code”. This new international mandatory Code includes measures for both safety and protection of the environment, and for some issues that straddle both, like marine navigation. With the Code on the books, a major challenge for everyone from the shipping companies and ship’s Masters, to shipping insurers and environmentalists is ensuring its implementation.
For EIA, this means translating a single navigational line calling on masters to account for “current measures to be taken when marine mammals are encountered” – contained in a 54-page document – to a practical step that every ship takes before the voyage begins. Together with the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition (ASOC), we presented on this provision as part of the Arctic Shipping Best Practices Information Forum (ASBPIF) on June 4th, 2019.
The Forum has built a public web portal for all things Polar Code, under the auspices of the Arctic Council’s working group for the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME). As part of its third meeting, EIA joined other voices, including a representative of the Arctic’s indigenous Chukotkan community Eduard Zdor, in reviewing the Forum’s progress thus far, and where we hope it will expand to in the future.
Much more remains to be done. A necessary step for the Forum will be ensuring that information on marine mammals is available for the entire Arctic. In parts of Canada, the Forum already has potential routes that minimize impacts on belugas, walrus, and other species. In contrast, no information on marine mammals is on the forum for the whole of the Russian Federation. From there we hope to see how mariners use this information as they consider other challenges like ice, weather patterns, hydrology, and other vessels. Whether this is best provided as posters, or as a pop up in navigational software itself, was debated among Forum participants after our presentation. Other measures, like banning the use of HFO or creating new marine protected areas for key habitat, will also go a long way towards reducing some of the impacts of shipping. With the Forum, we may be able to chart a better course for the region’s shipping.