Security group trains for Arctic ship disaster
Polar satellite will provide much-needed backup
Think about this scenario:
The Coast Guard says a cruise ship, the MS Bremen, carrying 260 passengers and crew, is in difficulty somewhere in Canada’s Arctic waters, with no power. The captain says his ship is in trouble and all but a few crew members have been ordered to abandon ship. He’s ordered lifeboats to head to the nearest shore.
That was the subject of a day-long exercise at the Arctic security interdepartmental working group’s meeting last week in Yellowknife. Participants looked at who needs to do what when faced with this kind of disaster in the Arctic.
This group, comprising representatives of federal and territorial government departments agencies, as well as the Coast Guard, Canada Customs and Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., meets twice a year to discuss security issues in the North.
The imaginary event described above was supposed to have occurred near Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea, but it could have happened anywhere in the North, said Major Al McIntosh, senior operations and training officer at the Northern Area Headquarters in Yellowknife.
“We tried not to look into the specifics of the ground,” McIntosh said. “This could have happened in Resolute.”
Meeting participants considered, among many other issues, whose responsibility the passengers would be as they moved from the ship to the island to the nearest community and how they could resolve legal problems such as the request by seven foreign passengers for refugee status.
McIntosh said this exercise shows the importance of knowing how to use an emergency plan.
“It’s very valuable because it puts people in the right framework,” McIntosh said.
From Yukon to Nunavut, there are only a small number of immigration officers and no intelligence officers to deal with emergencies.
Only 40 regular armed forces personnel are stationed in Yellowknife, and their presence is more administrative than defensive. They’re supported by only four Twin Otters and a maximum of two Aurora fly-over flights a year.
While Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit have forward landing bases, Eureka and Alert on Ellesmere Island are only equipped for electronic surveillance and weather observation.
Soon, the working group learned, these listening stations will be backed up by new polar satellite surveillance program – dubbed “Polar Star” – which will be tested in 2005 or 2006 and be operational by 2008.
The $600-million satellite system will conduct surveillance on aircraft and vessels approaching North America, keep an eye on the Arctic and supply information to the U.S.
The Polar Star system will rely on images gathered by existing commercial satellites that can observe small objects on the ground, monitor the coasts and watch for emergencies and environmental disasters.
The working group also heard from Franklyn Griffiths, a researcher who says southern Canadians exaggerate the threat to sovereignty from shipping through the Northwest Passage. They overreact, according to Griffiths, because increased traffic through the passage looks like a symbolic blow to Canada’s destiny and self-image.
But Griffiths said lack of support for navigation – including uncertainty, delay, liability, increased insurance and other costs will probably drive the shipping industry away.
And what global warming brings to the Northwest Passage, he said, is unpredictability rather than the totally ice-free conditions favourable to navigation.
However, this won’t lessen the need to know how to respond to emergencies similar to the case-study looked at by the working group.