European Affairs

Though the Arctic is a true frontier, it is quite different from the 17th century frontier of North America: Europeans would take months to reach it and often they would not be heard from for years. Since they knew very little about where they were going, they knew to prepare for their expeditions. Accidents would happen, of course: ships and lives would be lost. But the reaction in Europe was usually resignation to adversity. Accidents were the price that had to be paid to move forward and no country could “respond” to tragic incidents because there were no communications operating in anything resembling real-time communications.


Today, people working or traveling in most parts of the world generally expect to be able to count on real-time response to any accident, insult to the environment or lesser challenge to life or limb. In the temperate world, technology enables everyone (traveler and local inhabitant) to know exactly where they are, to communicate quickly and reliably and to call upon available expertise (usually located nearby) in the face of almost any event. That is as it should be: the world today has considerably less tolerance for a slow or inadequate response to an accident that threatens loss of life or damage to the environment.

Arctic Ocean

This situation is not true for the Arctic. The Arctic remains a vast and significant unknown. Scientific and technical understanding is several orders of magnitude behind that of the temperate world. Communications are neither adequate nor reliable. Personnel with in-depth knowledge and expertise of a specific (and often limited) aspect of the Arctic are randomly scattered around the hemisphere. Some are in the Arctic, but many are located much further to the south. The kind of physical assets that might mitigate a casualty are often located hundreds of miles from the scene. Towns or villages that could provide refuge (or aid) are widely separated. There are no roads. Airfields are few. The lack of port facilities impedes marine activity and travel.

Even more challenging, the most appropriate response to an accident off the coast of Alaska may be found in either Canada or Russia, i.e. across an international frontier. Furthermore, as things stand, there are only very limited management structures in place to coordinate cooperation to get around these obstacles. Until now, the situation has been literally largely frozen with some international attention under the auspices of the Arctic Council, on which are represented Canada, Denmark with Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the United States and the Russian Federation. But the change in climate has exposed the lack of infrastructure for dealing with a new environment with dramatically heavier traffic. Not an easy situation.

Of course, the actual distances between nations in the Arctic are reasonably short. But beyond these difficulties that humankind can control and must overcome, there are the challenges created by the Arctic environment itself: low temperatures, extremely long periods of darkness or limited daylight, extreme weather events developing quickly and often extending for lengthy periods, and lastly, the presence of a unique factor – the dynamic cover of sea ice.

Putting together this environment and these circumstances with the fact that a more-accessible Arctic will stimulate increased human presence and activity in the area, the logical conclusion is that serious accidents will occur.

There follows a logical initial step to maximize the chance of an adequate and timely response to any casualty or catastrophe in the Arctic under the conditions described above: this step would be the establishment of a single Arctic Emergency Liaison Office (AELO).

This concept is a derivative of the International Submarine Emergency Rescue Liaison Office (ISMERLO), a military organization in Norfolk, Virginia, that was created in the wake of the catastrophic loss of the Russian submarine “Kursk” – an episode which was made more tragic by the abortive and totally ineffective efforts to respond to the sinking. The ISMERLO office is staffed by representatives from nations that operate submarines. The office’s mission is to coordinate the widely-dispersed submarine rescue assets around the world, both personnel and materiel, to provide the quickest possible response to a submarine disaster.

Founded in 2002, its value was confirmed in 2004 when one of Russia’s small “Mir” submersible (with a limited air supply) subs became entangled in a cable on the ocean bottom off Petropavlovsk, a city on the Kamchatka peninsula in easternmost Russia. The Russian authorities contacted ISMERLO and through it Britain was asked to help by airlifting a rescue submarine from a British base to Siberia. Only after the transport was airborne did the Russians realize that they had no way to unload the sub once the plane landed, so the U.S. flew in cargo-handling equipment from Japan. The proposed AELO should have capabilities similar to ISMERLO’s, enabling it to help coordinate the deployments of unique, dispersed assets in a time-sensitive emergency.

The AELO would have an international, multilingual staff, and operate around the clock. The office should be located in a country with the best in high-latitude, international communications, including satellite, high frequency to ultra high frequency radio, telephone and computer connectivity to the web. The staff would not be subject-matter experts, but would be required to have in-depth knowledge of international Arctic resources: technical experts, materials and material readiness, resource capability, location, and, most importantly, the locations and contact information for each. The AELO would be a liaison and information-exchange office. It would not be a management office. In short, the AELO could be best described as an “Arctic 911” dispatcher.

By having a common location with Arctic-wide coverage, there would be “a phone number to call” immediately for help in the event of a serious casualty in order to locate the most capable and available resources and help bring them to bear quickly and effectively. Language barriers would be minimized; the nearest responder would be reached; confusion and inefficiency could be avoided by not having multiple points of contact to determine the most appropriate, feasible response.

What kind of emergencies can be expected in the Arctic? Just about every kind that one sees in the temperate world, but occurring in a far more difficult area for responders to operate. In these often-extreme conditions, there will be risks of oil spill, man overboard, serious illness or injury on ship or in the field, ship propulsion-failure, ship collision, fire or flooding (on ship or on land), plane crash and, of course, the need for search-and-rescue missions.

Currently, there are some capabilities for emergency response in the Arctic, but in every case these are focused on specific events or areas. The Canadian Government has made excellent preparations to respond to a major aircraft casualty over its territory. The North Slope Borough (the northern part of the State of Alaska) has excellent helicopter rescue capability. Could these resources be made available to respond to an emergency outside of their immediate domain? An AELO with an international charter would know. The World Wide Navigation and Warning Service and the Global Marine Disaster Signal Service (GMDSS) are expanding to the Arctic. An Arctic Emergency Liaison Office could be connected to those systems to coordinate the quickest reaction to any maritime emergency or maritime hazard.

When considering the benefits of an international office acting as liaison and coordinating the response to an emergency, the advantages emerge clearly when one considers the proximity of the Arctic states and also the close association of national interests that are bound to develop in the near future in a more-accessible Arctic. Geography means that what might happen in U.S. waters might well impact Canada or the Russian Federation or other nations in the Arctic. Take the example of a sizable oil spill at sea in the Arctic: right now, any U.S. response would have to be confined to the nation’s limited research about how to combat an oil spill in ice. The first question would therefore be: is the spill in shore-fast ice (where perhaps the U.S. is most knowledgeable) or is it in sea ice that is loose and free floating (a situation where Canada or Norway would be more knowledgeable and more skilled)? At present, there is not great depth of such expertise, so it would be important to know quickly whether the appropriate specialists for such an emergency are present in the vicinity or whether they are on travel. In dealing with a spill, is containment/mitigation equipment available or is it not operational for whatever reason? Are there back-up resources available in an adjacent country?

A final consideration on this point will underscore the collective interest in creating an emergency liaison center for the Arctic. There is a surprisingly long list of answers when the question is asked: Who stands to lose in an event of a serious oil spill at sea in the Arctic? The list of potential losers includes the environment, the public, the government, the fishing industry, the oil companies, all Arctic maritime commerce and perhaps even the global economy. And if the spill occurred at a spot adjacent to the interests of another Arctic nation, it could impact all these entities in the second nation as well. So the adjacent nation would be every bit as interested in controlling the emergency as the nation where it occurred. In other words, there is a powerful international dimension among the Arctic states – and beyond, potentially including all nations that contemplate using the Arctic in any way.

The most critical element in creating an AELO is the will of the international community and, following that, agreement on a concept for funding the office.

To get a consensus and legal framework, the Arctic Council has a sub-body that seems ideally suited for the job: the Emergency Prevention Preparedness and Response (EPPR) working group. It would be the right venue to vet the concept, confirm the need for it and define the basic framework around which the AELO could be developed. The cost of establishing and operating the center would be comparatively small and would not necessarily be borne by governments alone. There are many non-governmental parties that should have an interest in the AELO’s existence and function including all Arctic nations, the Arctic non-governmental organization (NGOs), local/state/territorial/provincial governments, oil and gas companies, Arctic-user ship-owners, commercial fishing interests, other commercial Arctic interests (such as the insurance industry) and, of course, environmental groups. The expansion and development of the Arctic is a profound opportunity that can only be properly exploited with great respect for the environment. How better for environmentalists to demonstrate their concern than by becoming a member of the team that actually helps protect the environment and contributes to personnel safety?

An Arctic Emergency Liaison Office should be an early building-block in the development of the Arctic in a controlled and safe manner. The world can afford nothing less.

George Newton is a senior advisor to the U.S. Arctic Research Commission.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.