Northern Sea Routes: a New Challenge for Rescue at Sea

Northern Sea Routes: a New Challenge for Rescue at Sea
  • PublishedSeptember 7, 2022
Broken ice on the surface of the calm water near the shore at sunset

Global warming is progressively opening up the possibility of exploiting the so-called Northern routes, which would allow the Suez and Panama canals to be bypassed. Today, the Northern Sea Routes (NSR) are being developed as a priority. If this opportunity is financially interesting, it is mandatory to take into consideration the issue of traffic safety and the availability of emergency means.

Northern Sea Routes
Arctic sea routes northeast passage and EEZS

Active regional actors:

Being aware of the stakes of air and maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) in the Arctic, the Member-States of the Arctic Council signed an agreement in 2011, defining areas of responsibility and identifying Rescue Coordination Centers.

This agreement adds up to the Hamburg Convention of 1979, which requires each State to set up Search and Rescue (SAR) resources in its area of responsibility. Nevertheless, it seems that the resources dedicated to SAR are still very scarce compared to the vastness of the NSR.

Northern Sea Routes: search-and-rescue-delimitation-europe
Search and Rescue delimitation Europe

But material issues remain:

Before considering rescue operations, sailing in high latitudes raises strong navigation safety issues, which need to be addressed in order to reduce risks inherent to this hostile zone. Firstly, the usual means of communication and positioning do not yet offer satisfactory coverage: this is a major issue for rescue at sea.

Moreover, the mapping of the navigation zones is still imprecise and the beacons must be placed in such way to avoid the presence of icebergs which can damage them. In order to address and limit the dangers of this area, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has set up the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code), defining rules for the training of personnel and the construction of vessels.

In the end, the lack of dedicated assets and the distances to cover in case of SAR operations, have a huge impact on insurances rates, which reduces the benefits of a faster route like NSR.

Concrete actions of cooperation are initiated…

Beyond these material observations, it should be noted that States are becoming more aware of the importance of safety considerations in the Arctic. This is illustrated by the creation of a Search and Rescue expert group within the Arctic Council, and the launch of the Safe Arctic project whose objective is to develop a common culture and practice for safety matters in this area.

In September 2021, the Russian Federation, which holds the presidency of the Artic Council, organized exercises within this project’s framework in the Barents Sea. One exercise involved an accident on board a cruise ship carrying roughly 3,000 people, with the risk of fire and the need for medical evacuation by helicopter.

…in which the French Navy takes part.

For its part, the French Navy has a long-standing interest in learning about the Arctic. The historic mission of the supply-and-assistance ship Rhône in 2018, transiting through the NSR, is a very concrete example of it.

But beyond this high-profile mission, France has set up dynamic cooperations with Nordic countries, as evidenced by the participation of French Navy assets, since 2018, in the ARGUS exercise led by Denmark.

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