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Expedition vessel cruising through sea ice in Svalbard

UArctic’s new Arctic maritime safety programme learns from the past to address today’s challenges

The first scoping seminar for the programme brought together more than 25 participants to outline potential research and collaboration areas. This was the first step in implementing a new collaboration between UArctic and Lloyd’s Register Foundation.

The Arctic is undergoing profound changes with a global impact. We see the need for energy transition to clean and secure sources; the increase in blue economy activities; new shipping routes opening up due to decrease in sea ice; more tourists in northern locations; and changes in marine food systems.

With increased shipping, tourism and other economic activities we also see new challenges to the safety of the people who work and live in the Arctic, and also to the safety of those who are visiting the region. For example, the increase in shipping affects coastal areas, such as northern Canadian Indigenous communities. There is potential for sea ice breakage where it should remain intact, the risk of oil spills and pollution, and noise that can disturb wildlife, including culturally important species. Emergency response capacity is also lower in small, remote communities of the North.

Catherine Chambers works as Research Manager at University Centre of the Westfjords in the northwest of Iceland where safety is an ongoing concern. “The Westfjords region holds one third of the coastline of Iceland, and therefore maritime activities are a crucial part of local history, culture, and industry. With growing aquaculture and tourism, on top of important shipping and fishing industries, maritime safety is of utmost importance. We have an increasing number of large cruise ships and small sailboats visiting the port of Ísafjörður. If an accident was to happen at sea, we need to consider the capabilities of local search and rescue efforts and also the capacity of the local hospitals in the Westfjords region. As another example, in bad storms there can be danger in sending crew out on the aquaculture service and feeder boats. This industry relies on good forecasting information and clear decision-making flows, but what happens if storms become more unpredictable due to climate change?”

As we adjust to new realities in the Arctic, we need relevant knowledge that can inform decision-making. To that end, UArctic has just launched a new research program on Arctic maritime safety, supported by Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre. The program will look into historical perspectives on current safety challenges in the Arctic ocean economy, and learn from the past to help address today’s challenges to the safety of peoples in the Arctic. It aims to deliver new insights, evidence and case materials to policy and change makers, and also highlight further opportunities for collaboration.

The maritime safety program is shaped by two seminars and implemented through cross-disciplinary research fellowships and outreach, all co-developed by institutions in the UArctic network, Indigenous organizations as well as industry representatives. The program will also help build new capacity for research across UArctic, including opportunities for researchers from Indigenous communities.

The kick-off seminar took place in Reykjavík, Iceland on October 18-21, coinciding with the Arctic Circle Assembly to maximize inclusion of a diverse group of participants. The intensive working sessions were attended by people from different disciplines and backgrounds across east coast US, Canada, Nordic countries, and the UK. In addition, the team used the opportunity provided by the Arctic Circle Assembly to meet with potential collaborators including Indigenous peoples’ organizations and institutions with maritime interest.  

“In this first phase of the program, we are deliberately open to the breadth, depth and creativity of UArctic members and networks,” says Gunnar Stefánsson, UArctic Vice-President Research and the lead of the new research program. “If we are to address challenges efficiently and effectively, we need collaboration across borders, fields and sectors. As a circumpolar network, UArctic is capable of mobilizing the expertise we need to secure a safe and resilient future for this region. Our new collaboration with Lloyd’s Register Foundation enhances our capacity to do that.”

The seminar was structured to follow the World Café method. Using current challenges in the Arctic as the discussion framework, the participants moved from table to table to provide input on four key topics: learning from the past, safety, peoples of the Arctic, and maritime economy. Their contributions and ideas currently form a five-page document which will be refined and narrowed down in follow-up seminars.

Looking into the past allows us to draw upon the experiences of those who have dealt with similar realities before and learn from their lessons. This historical knowledge can help inform the transitions and policies we need going forward. Some interesting ideas for this kind of generational knowledge transfer emerged during the seminar discussions. For instance, ice typically accumulates on ship decks and structures as they sail through northern waters, which is highly risky. Seafarers in the North have always needed ways to break that ice while on board. By looking into the evolution of their equipment and effectiveness of winterization rules, we could raise awareness among crews who may not be used to Arctic conditions. As another example, there is an opportunity to learn from past strategies from months long sea voyages to treat mental health issues of modern-day crews who may be suffering from isolation or the polar nights of the Arctic. And what could we potentially learn from previous energy transitions, such as ships going from using wind in their sails to coal and finally oil as fuel?

Alex Stitt, Director of the Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre, was glad to observe the workings of the seminar in Reykjavík. “I was pleased to represent Lloyd’s Register Foundation at this workshop. We have identified UArctic as a potential partner to help us increase the understanding of the history of maritime safety in the region, and this seminar was held to design a program for that partnership. I was delighted by the seniority of the participants, and the quality of their engagement. I am very much looking forward to seeing the resulting proposals,” he says.

Over the next few months, contributions from the scoping seminar will be turned into a research program recommendation. Some seminar participants and invited organizations and individuals will continue working together to develop the recommendations, prioritize the focus areas, and outline the resources needed. After a review, the work will begin to deliver the research program with UArctic-HEC fellows in the agreed focus areas, and do outreach on the aims and priorities as well as the findings.

The program 'Arctic Maritime Safety: Learning from the past to help address today’s challenges to the safety of peoples in the Arctic' is supported by Lloyd’s Register Foundation Heritage and Education Centre.

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