Expert sounds alarm about dangerous Arctic waters

Most charts years out of date


Technicians on board the <I><p class=Amundsen prepare to deploy an instrument, nicknamed a “fish,” which pulls a multi-beam sonar device that can map the seabed. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)”/>
Technicians on board the Amundsen prepare to deploy an instrument, nicknamed a “fish,” which pulls a multi-beam sonar device that can map the seabed. (PHOTO BY JANE GEORGE)

This past weekend’s grounding of the Clipper Adventurer cruise ship near Kugluktuk underlines the inadequate charting of Arctic waters, says a leading Canadian ice expert.

This is the “single biggest issue in the Arctic,” said John Falkingham, a sea ice consultant and member of the International Ice Charting Working Group, who worked with the Canadian Ice Service for nearly 30 years.

Charts work like maps in waterways, telling ship navigators the safest routes to take.

But only about 10 per cent of Arctic waters are charted to modern-day standards, and it will take 300 years to complete the job at the current rate, Falkingham said in an Aug. 30 interview from Ottawa.

In the meantime, annual surveys of certain areas are done every year, but they’re limited in scope, he said.

“They can only progress at a rate that’s not fast enough for the industry that’s going in there, particularly the cruise industry, which tends to want to go to different areas,” he said. “They don’t want to stick with sea lanes— that’s boring.”

The Clipper Adventurer, operated by Mississauga, Ont.-based Adventure Canada, hit a rock in about three metres of water, about 55 nautical miles east of Kugluktuk on Aug. 27.

Its passengers and crew, said to be safe and unharmed, were transferred to the Coast Guard icebreaker, the Amundsen, to Kuglukuk where they were flown out to Edmonton on a charter.

But the Aug. 27 grounding of the Clipper Adventurer is not the first time a cruise ship has run aground in Arctic waters, Falkingam pointed out.

Ten years ago there was a similar occurrence in similar circumstances in Nunavut, which also took place in late August.

On Aug. 29, 1996, while en route from Gjoa Haven to Resolute Bay, the Hanseatic cruise ship, with 149 passengers, ran aground in Simpson Strait.

According to a Transport Canada investigation into the incident, the weather was fine and clear and the vessel was being navigated visually, by reference to shore ranges, and by radar.

The TSB determined that the Hanseatic grounded because the bridge team did not strictly adhere to the plan that had been prepared for navigating the vessel through the strait. Relying on a navigation buoy left in the strait from the previous navigation season contributed to the grounding.

The Disko-11 cruise ship also went aground off Greenland in June, 2007, after it ventured into uncharted waters, hitting rocks near the island of Qeqertarsuaq, with 52 Danish passengers on board, and a crew of 18.

Neither of these cases resulted in sinking or danger.

But there have been losses of life in Arctic cruises.

The Hans Hedtoft sank off the southern tip of Greenland on its maiden voyage on Jan. 30, 1959, after hitting an iceberg— and all 55 passengers and 40 crew were lost in this incident.

“The potential is there, and that’s the problem. But if a grounding happened and simultaneously some severe weather came along, high winds, high waves— that could really complicate things,” Falkingham said.

To avoid disaster, Canada needs to improve legal issues around charting and how these maps are done. For example, private companies— like gas and oil developers—which do their own surveys and produce charts, aren’t required to share the information with the Canadian Hydrographic Service, the agency that carries out mapping surveys and publishes paper and electronic nautical charts in Canada’s waters.

As well, current regulations don’t take into account the new kinds of technology now available, which could allow all ships to map-as-they-go— that is, if they were required to carry the equipment on-board, such as forward-looking sonar beams common to icebreakers.

Researchers on board the Amundsen also use sonar waves—similar but less powerful than the sound waves emitted during seismic testing— to see what lies below the ocean and produce an image of the seabed which can be used in improving charts.

The Amundsen’s multi-beam sonar machine can shoot out hundreds of sound waves covering about two kilometres on either side, which, like an ultrasound image of a baby in utero, produce detailed images of what lies under the wates.

The Amundsen also contains a single-beam sonar equipment attached to the bottom of its hull which can penetrate below to the sea floor and show if there are any hazards around.

Recent mapping in the Coronation Gulf near Kugluktuk found a new, southerly shipping lane that is safe— which the Amundsen now uses.

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