Symposium examines challenges, opportunities in a changing Arctic


The arrival of cruise ships in the Arctic is perhaps the most obvious sign that things are changing in the ocean that circles the North Pole. In September, more than 1,000 passengers and 600 crewmembers on board the cruise ship Crystal Serenity steamed through the Northwest Passage. The cruise was a harbinger of increased activity not only for cruise vessels but for shipping, oil exploration and recovery and more.

A recent symposium in Portland, Maine, addressed some of the issues around a changing Arctic. Billed as “Marine Technology and the North” and sponsored by the Marine and Oceanographic Technology Network and the Maine law firm Verrill Dana’s North Atlantic and Arctic Group, the October forum presented speakers from government, industry and policy circles and was designed to provide insights into developing industry and other standards for Arctic and high-latitude operations.

One takeaway from the symposium was that like the unpredictable nature of the Arctic environment going forward, there are still many questions to be answered regarding safety at sea, shipping routes and how day-to-day operations will be conducted as the Arctic warms and ice no longer blocks the waterways.

The keynote presentation by Capt. Andrew J. Norris, a professor of maritime security at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, R.I., highlighted the raft of challenges facing those companies and organizations seeking to expand their operations to a changing Arctic. These hurdles include:

  • A lack of modern bathymetry — 90 percent of the available soundings were gathered using a lead line.
  • The vast area of the Arctic — for example, the distance from Barrow on the north coast of Alaska to Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians is 1,250 miles, the same distance as Boston to Miami.
  • Logistical difficulties in an area of few roads and ports.
  • The need to respect the sensitive Arctic environment.
  • The challenges of conducting search and rescue operations to assist mariners in distress.

Some of the symposium’s presentations were from companies working on solutions to these challenges. For example, Pete Thompson, director of engineering at Ecochlor Inc. in Maynard, Mass., detailed his company’s system for ballast water treatment that will meet International Maritime Organization standards due go into effect in September. Ecochlor’s system, which uses chlorine dioxide, will reportedly allow shipping companies to meet IMO regulations in the sensitive waters of the Arctic, which are less able to resist invasive species.

While commercial interests will compete for newly available resources, the national and regional governments in the Arctic are also positioning themselves to have a say in how the region will be “opened up” as the ice melts.

Marie-Claude Francoeur, Quebec’s delegate to New England, outlined some of the elements of Quebec’s Plan Nord, a blueprint that aims to “promote the potential for mining, energy, tourism and social and cultural development in Quebec north of the 49th degree of latitude. It will create jobs and wealth for northern communities and for Quebec as a whole, while ensuring respect for the northern population and the environment.”

For mariners aboard ships, perhaps the most important talk was by Susan Hazlett from the faculty of Maine Maritime Academy. Hazlett stressed that under the requirements of the IMO Polar Code, adopted in 2014 and effective as of Jan. 1, deck officers standing watches are required to have passed at least a basic ice navigation class.

“The basic ice navigation class has been finished,” Hazlett noted in her presentation, “and has been certified by the USCG for both blended (an online class and a test at a qualified testing center) and classroom delivery. The class has been taught at MMA.”

The symposium’s 15 presenters, even with their various affiliations in industry, government, research, law and training, barely scratched the surface of the wide range of issues involved in moving regular marine operations north as the Arctic changes.

By Professional Mariner Staff