Disaster Response a Major Issue in the Melting Arctic

Melting ArcticPhoto: Christine Zenino
The melting Arctic landscape is creating a new set of global relationships.

As the Arctic Ocean and its surrounding environment continue to thaw, changes are taking place rapidly. The dramatic transformation of habitats is endangering native species such as the polar bear, pressuring indigenous populations and creating a brave new world of geopolitical and commercial relationships. As sea ice melts and Arctic maritime passages open, militaries and corporations alike are jockeying for access to shipping lanes, resources and influence.

New analysis is pointing to a stark realization – that the ability for the eight circumpolar nations to respond to disasters in this new arena is extremely limited. Should the emerging Arctic experience an ecological crisis from an oil spill or a humanitarian crisis from a major shipwreck, national response capabilities may be highly inadequate.

Polar SARPhoto: John Chroston
Search and rescue will be a vital part of responding to future Arctic disasters.

On May 8, 2012, Lloyd’s of London released a report of the risks and opportunities posed by a rapidly evolving Arctic. Flora, fauna and indigenous populations are less likely to benefit, and a new set of government and corporate actors stand to profit. The new economic drivers of the Arctic are likely to be mineral exploitation (petroleum, gas and mining), fishing, tourism and maritime logistics to navigate new passageways. But Lloyd’s of London cited a high level of risk as well.

Geopolitical relationships between the eight circumpolar nations are just emerging, and commercial ventures are deemed as high reward/high risk given the uncertain environment. In addition, besides the eight circumpolar nations of Canada, Russia, the US, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark, other global powers such as China and even Korea are looking to have influence north of the Arctic Circle.

With a potential feeding frenzy from ‘southern’ nations and corporations, the risk of overshooting disaster response capabilities is extremely high. For example, while circumpolar militaries are becoming increasingly active, the ability to operate effectively in the melting Arctic is limited. For example, the US Navy recently conducted a complex war game that demonstrated the Navy’s polar capabilities to be woefully inadequate.

According to an article published last month by the Associated Press, the real dangers are actually not militaries engaging one other – the distances are still great and the terrain is tough – it’s the close coordination needed for search and rescue operations should there be a massive cruise liner wreck or an effective response to an ecologically destructive oil spill.

Polar Bear FamilyPhoto: Susanne Miller, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
The face of the melting Arctic: The polar bear

Heather Conley of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said in the report: “The risk is not militarization; it is the lack of [response] capabilities while economic development and human activity dramatically increases.” International cooperation and leveraging indigenous expertise are going to be essential components when responding to disasters in the melting Arctic.

Last year, the eight circumpolar nations signed an agreement to cooperate on search and rescue, and also formed a task force to begin exploring response and recovery for oil spills. An analysis by the Arctic Institute further argued that Arctic indigenous nations can contribute invaluable assets to a new regional security architecture, including leveraging knowledge of the changing terrain to support rescue and oil spill operations.

As a new Arctic ‘Great Game’ unfolds, international cooperation and integrating indigenous populations are going to be critical. Without this, there is a real danger that the disasters of the future will be beyond capabilities to effectively respond.