Arctic Nations Unprepared for Shipping Catastrophe

The eight nations with Arctic territory aren't prepared to respond to a major shipwreck, reports a new study. Continue reading →

Arctic nations are unprepared for a major shipwreck in the region, a recent study has concluded.

According to a report in the Arctic Journal, Marc Jacobsen of the Washington, D.C.-based Arctic Institute modeled a scenario in which the cruise liner Costa Deliziosa struck an iceberg off the coast of the town of Ilulissat, in western Greenland.

The hypothetical incident - which Jacobsen modeled as taking place at night in the summer, in largely open water populated by drift ice - resulted in a 50-meter hole in the ship's hull. Several hundred people would need treatment, requiring transportation that would be "extremely comprehensive, very time consuming and therefore very likely leave thousands of passengers behind in Ilulissat," a town of 4,500 inhabitants.

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The Arctic Council adopted a Search and Rescue Plan in 2011 specifically to address such accidents. (The council's membership comprises the eight nations with Arctic territory -- the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.) But, Jacobsen argued at a conference in Norway last month, the huge distances and limited infrastructure in the region mean that the plan is inadequate for a disaster involving a ship of such size.

Additionally, the environmental consequences of such an accident, including the spillage of oil and toxic chemicals into Arctic waters, would be extremely hard to deal with.

Such hypothetical scenarios are of increasing interest to governments, industry and environmentalists, as retreating sea ice results in an increase in vessel traffic in the Arctic.

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The International Maritime Organization has completed a draft "polar code" for vessels operating in the Arctic. It's scheduled to be finalized later this year and to come into effect as early as 2016.

However, while some have lauded the draft as an important first step, others have criticized it for failing to address the heightened risk that increased shipping poses for an environmental catastrophe.

The cruise ship L'Austral sails off Antarctica. Credit: Pasieka/Science Photo Library/Corbis


Antarctic Heritage Trust conservators recently made a stunning discovery: a box of 22 exposed but unprocessed negatives, frozen in a block of ice for nearly one hundred years. The negatives were recovered from a corner of a supply hut that British explorer Robert Falcon Scott established to support his doomed expedition to the South Pole from 1910-1913. Scott and his men reached the South Pole but died on the trip home. The hut was next used by the Ross Sea Party of Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition after they were stranded on Ross Island when their ship, the Aurora, blew out to sea. This party is believed to have left behind the undeveloped negatives. The cellulose nitrate negatives are seen here as they were found -- frozen in ice.

The Antarctic Heritage Trust tapped conservator Mark Strange to painstakingly separate, clean (including removing mold) and consolidate the 22 layers of film.

This recovered image shows Alexander Stevens, the chief scientist and geologist of the Ross Sea Party, on the deck of the Aurora in McMurdo Sound, Antarctica.

A view of Tent Island in McMurdo Sound. There is mold damage evident around the edges of the image.

This damaged photo shows Big Razorback Island in McMurdo Sound.

Alexander Stevens again poses on board the deck of the Aurora. It was not until January 1917 that the Aurora returned to rescue the Ross Sea Party. By then three men had died, including Arnold Patrick Spencer-Smith, the team's photographer. To see more images from the recovered negatives, visit the

Antarctic Heritage Trust's website