Alaska prepares for an open Arctic

By Kathleen McCoy

University of Alaska Anchorage

The luxury cruise liner Crystal Serenity, with 1,700 people on board, scheduled its launch out of Seward for August 16. The vessel is bound for a record-breaking journey along the west coast of Alaska and into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, known as the Northwest Passage. It’s due into New York City September 17.

Along the way, the vessel will pass by Kodiak and Nome, slip through the Bering Strait and skirt the tiny communities of Shishmaref, Kotzebue, Point Hope, Wainwright and Barrow, tracking the northern coastline through the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

An Arctic itinerary like this keeps serious people awake at night.

Only four years ago, the Italian cruise ship Costa Concordia deviated from its course and struck rocks off the coast of Tuscany. That ship had 4,000 people on board. The accident occurred so close to shore that some passengers simply leapt into the warm Mediterranean Sea and swam for the beach. But not everybody could. Evacuation took six hours, according to reports, and 32 people died.

What if it happened here? The questions are many and big. Even with Canadian and American rescue agencies fully engaged, how would tiny coastal communities like Nome, or Point Hope, or Barrow approach and accommodate a rescue operation? How might Arctic conditions like cold, ice and fog hamper that rescue? And cruise ship travelers are often older. How would they tolerate a slide down a 100-foot inflatable chute into a lifeboat pitching on the icy sea? Are lifeboats as designed today even adequate for an Arctic evacuation?

Solid questions

Earlier this summer, key American and Canadian players met at UAA to imagine just such a cruise ship rescue in the Arctic. Their goal was to answer first-responder needs.

UAA is home to the University of Alaska Arctic Domain Awareness Center (ADAC) which hosted the gathering, dubbed the Arctic IoNS conference. IoNS stands for Incidents of National Significance. ADAC is one of 10 Department of Homeland Security Centers of Excellence. While the other centers focus on broad threats like terrorism, food or data security, ADAC is the only one with a geographic focus, the Arctic.

The opening of the Arctic—to commercial traffic like shipping barges and cruise ships, to science expeditions and adventurers—sparked the conference. The U.S. Coast Guard has broad responsibility for the sub-Arctic and Arctic waters off Alaska’s coast. ADAC serves the USCG, its principal client, by directing and providing research to fill gaps in knowledge.

Workshop participants represented almost 40 different entities, from the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guards, domestic and international weather services, cruise ship operators, communities along the route, hospitals, emergency managers and first responders, the Alaska National Guard and U.S. Army, even the FBI. UAA was just one of many universities represented, including UAF, Rutgers, Loyola, Texas A&M, Washington, Idaho and New Hampshire.

Surfacing the problems

Conferees listened to panel discussions covering Arctic-related travel and potential rescue issues. Operators like the Canadian and U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Army and Alaska National Guard laid out major concerns should a cruise ship, or some other vessel, become disabled in Arctic waters.

Subsequent panels tackled challenges that are typical of any rescue operation—communications, medical emergencies, onshore hosting capacities—but discussed them in light of Arctic conditions or the physical state of those being rescued—say a large number of older cruise ship clients—and how these issues might impact success.

Experts from government and academia gathered in four major breakout sessions to isolate concerns. Their work was called “a gap analysis,” looking for holes in knowledge or information, or for any necessary rescue processes that might be constrained in the Arctic.

Example: The communications working group considered what in the Arctic might challenge effective information transmission. Could Arctic conditions and cold temperatures shut down technology that works fine off the coast of California or Maine? Since different countries are involved, can data from Canada or from the U.S. be used by anyone involved in the rescue?

They discussed the need to filter voluminous emergency data from multiple sources down to only the information essential in a time-sensitive rescue. They called it the need for “thin pipes.” When time is short, information overload can be a real threat to success. They also stressed the value of community- or place-based partners who likely know geography and local conditions far better than just-arriving first responders.

One group considered how working with an aging clientele changes rescue processes. Another group dealt with medical rescue and technological capacities. Would Nome be able to handle 1,700 evacuated cruisers, some in need of emergency treatment? What about the emergency personnel engaged in a large-scale rescue?

Looking for long-term capacity

Douglas Causey, an ecology professor at UAA, serves as the principal investigator for ADAC. He explained the conference purpose this way: first responders like the U.S. and Canadian Coast Guards already know how to handle rescues; they do it all the time. But what unique characteristics of the Arctic, the size of the vessel or the age of its clientele might challenge or hamper rescue success? Experts in logistics, first response, emergency medical and technical areas worked to surface critical unknowns. This process allows future research to fill identified knowledge gaps.

Each conference work group delivered questions that need more work. Their reports funneled to Causey, who will prioritize and forward them to the Department of Homeland Security. With agency approval and funding, ADAC will advertise for researchers to tackle the work.

“Ultimately, this is less about rescue, and much more about clearing up knowledge gaps,” Causey said.

Written by Kathleen McCoy, UAA Office of University Advancement