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Envision a cruise ship capsizing in Arctic seas

By CRAIG H. ALLEN Sr.

Publication: The Day

Published January 22. 2012 4:00AM
Gregorio Borgia/AP Photo
The cruise ship Costa Concordia lies on its side after running aground off Giglio, Italy. The Coast Guard is studying the proper responses to a similar incident in far less temperate waters.

The tragic loss of the Italian-flag cruise ship Costa Concordia in the Tuscan waters off Italy's Isola del Giglio on Jan. 13 provides a sobering warning to planners charged with preparing for the coming arrival of similar cruise ships off the Arctic coasts of the United States and Canada. Organizers for an April conference on the Arctic to be held at the Coast Guard Academy in New London will be closely studying the incident in the coming months.

It is not hard to imagine the greater tragedy that could result if a similar accident occurred in Arctic waters, with water temperature near the freezing point and the wind-chilled air temperature often even lower.

The Costa Concordia was one of the world's newest and best outfitted cruise ships. Built in Italy and launched in 2005, she sailed under the Italian flag and was commanded by an experienced Italian captain. The vessel reportedly met all construction, design, equipment and manning standards prescribed by the Safety of Life at Sea Convention (SOLAS) - the international code initially enacted after the loss of RMS Titanic, 100 year ago this coming April.

The Mediterranean waters where the vessel routinely sailed have been navigated for millennia and are well charted. Those charts are now digitized and loaded into an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS), where they are integrated with combined GPS-GLONASS satellite-based position signals to provide a real-time display of the vessel's location accurate to within 1-3 meters in most locations. Ship-to-shore communications in the area are also excellent.

After striking the Le Scole reef, the Concordia was apparently beached intentionally near Giglio Porto, where air and surface vessels under control of the Italian Coast Guard's Livorno Maritime Rescue Coordination Center stood ready to evacuate the ship's 4,200 passengers and crew. Many of the ship's lifeboats proved to be useless once the ship's list prevented safe launching. Some 200 passengers from the stricken vessel swam ashore in the 57 degree waters, where they were reportedly greeted by townspeople with blankets and a waiting network of ambulances and medical facilities comprising the local EMS.

Picture for a moment that same ship in the Beaufort Sea, 30 miles north of the United States or Canadian Arctic coastline, where navigation aids are virtually non-existent and even something as basic as a navigational compass can be unreliable.

After raking its hull against a "growler" iceberg, which the ship's radar and lookouts failed to detect in time to avoid it, the vessel quickly develops a 25 degree list, precluding launch of most of the vessel's lifeboats. Water temperature in that environment is near freezing, air temperature often much colder.

How close is the nearest U.S. or Canadian air station or rescue vessel? What is its capacity? How reliable will ship-to-shore communications - which are so essential to effective rescue coordination - be? Where will the evacuated passengers and crew members be taken? What EMS facilities will await them there? How close is the nearest salvage vessel capable of assisting a vessel that large? And what of the vessel's half million gallons of fuel oil? Where is the closest cleanup contractor and will it be equipped and staffed to respond to a potential spill that large in the frigid arctic waters?

A far-feteched scenario, you say? Not at all. The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators already boasts 14 members who operate some 20 passenger vessels in the Arctic. Cruises to the Arctic reportedly doubled between 2005 and 2006, and cruises through the Northwest Passage increased by 70 percent between 2006 and 2009. In 2010, the Hapag-Lloyd Cruises vessel M/S Hanseatic transited the Northwest Passage westward, stopping in Barrow and Nome, Alaska. And cruise giant Royal Caribbean International is now taking reservations for 12-day "Arctic Circle" cruises from June through August of 2012.

Developments like these, among others, prompted the member states of the Arctic Council to come together on May 12, 2011, in Nuuk, Greenland to sign the Agreement on Cooperation on Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic. At the same time, the International Maritime Organization in London is at work developing a "Polar Code" for ships operating in Arctic and Antarctic waters.

The U.S. Coast Guard, whose Arctic operations date back to the 1860s, has recently ramped up its Arctic presence and operations in response to increased activities in the region. The heroics of Coast Guard rescue forces in Alaska are now featured in a popular television series aired on the Weather Channel.

Most recently, much of the world closely followed the progress of the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy as it broke a path through Bering Sea ice to enable the Russian tanker Renda to resupply Nome with badly needed heating oil and gasoline. Although much has been accomplished to respond to rapidly changing arctic conditions and activities, much more is yet to be done. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy stands ready to help.

Arctic maritime safety is one of the questions experts will grapple with when the Coast Guard Academy hosts a two-day conference on "Leadership for the Arctic" in New London on April 12-13. Panelists drawn from a broad array of disciplines will examine the history of the Arctic and the scientific bases for responsible, risk-based decision-making before turning to an examination of the challenges and opportunities the Arctic will pose for those charged with exercising leadership in maritime safety, stewardship, law and governance. The Costa Concordia tragedy will surely be fresh in the minds of many participating in that conference.

Craig H. Allen Sr. is a retired Coast Guard officer and cutterman who now serves as the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Maritime Studies at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and as a resident fellow in the Academy's Center for Maritime Policy and Strategy.

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