Barents Rescue 2009 and emergency preparedness in the High North
Expert comment: On September 8-10 the international Barents Rescue 2009 exercise was held. The exercise is intended to increase practical cooperation on search and rescue (SAR) and handling of acute pollution. The High North comprises vast areas that have a harsh climate and little infrastructure. Conducting rescue operations with scarce resources is challenging and demands multilateral cooperation. The biannual Barents Rescue exercise is a productive initiative. But are we sufficiently prepared to manage the increased activity in the High North?Most of the activity in the High North is located around the border area between Norway and Russia. In case of an emergency, the closest rescue resource could be located on the other side of the national border. Furthermore, an oil spill in Norwegian waters could easily turn into a Russian problem and vice versa. International cooperation is therefore very important to handle larger accidents in the High North. The Barents Rescue exercises are vital steps to increase international practical cooperation.
However, intensified cross-border cooperation alone is not a sufficient measure to ensure a satisfying level of emergency preparedness in the future. Petroleum extraction in the High North has already increased and an additional growth is expected given the development of new fields. Although to a limited extent, oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers are already in regular traffic in the Barents Sea, and one predicts a traffic rise as a result of intensified oil and gas extraction in the area. Shipping of other goods through the region might also result from climate change and less sea ice. The increase in cruise ship traffic is already perceptible. Lastly, fishery activity can be anticipated to intensify due to the increasing fish stocks in the area.
One challenge related to increased activity in the High North is development of SAR resources. Some activity in the region is already located beyond the range of the currently deployed SAR helicopters.
Perhaps the worst case scenario is accidents related to cruise ships. As of today, little or no capacity to evacuate such large ships exists. If an accident should occur far from shore, one would be dependent on large vessels nearby to rescue the large number of passengers. In addition, many of these ships arrive from southern latitudes and do not have rescue equipment that adheres to recommended standards for operating in the Arctic. Implementing mandatory standards on Arctic maritime activity can remedy this shortcoming.
Increased maritime activity in the High North is followed by higher risk of oil spill. The environment in the region is very sensitive, and the cold climate makes oil dissolve slowly. Oil can easily be trapped in drifting ice or in pools surrounded by ice, making it hard to contain and eliminate. A major oil spill could have catastrophic consequences for the environment and fisheries. Increased maritime activity could necessitate more emergency pollution preparedness resources. The Norwegian Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning concluded in its 2009 report that the infrastructure in the Norwegian part of region is not sufficiently developed to allow for petroleum activity. Furthermore, there is a lack of large vessels which can be used for towage and oil spill contamination and elimination. It is not unlikely that there are similar shortcomings on the Russian side of the border.
The Barents Rescue exercise is an important step to coordinate international rescue operations in the High North. However, it can be argued that a general increase in rescue resources is necessary to manage the risks related to the prospected activity in the High North.