Shipping has always been an important part of transportation in Greenland, but climate change has decisively changed conditions for navigation by expanding the scope of areas with open water and extending the duration of ice-free periods in the waters that freeze during winter.
The MARPART project is an international research project on "maritime preparedness and international partnership" in the Arctic that examines consequences of climate change for societal security, because climate change also entails increased risks in connection with increased shipping, oil and gas exploration at sea and other forms of maritime activity. In addition to Greenland, the project also includes Iceland, the Arctic Norway and northwestern Russia. Employees at Ilisimatusarfik have been responsible for the Greenlandic part of the research project.
The point of departure for the project as a whole is that climate change will lead to an increased level of activity in Arctic waters, that this will result in an increased level of risk, and that this will create a need for increased emergency preparedness and international cooperation on preparedness, search and rescue operations (SAR), as the small ones Arctic countries themselves do not have sufficient capacity for dealing with major accidents.
For the Greenlandic part of the project, the purpose has been to investigate whether the general assessments and expectations also apply to Greenland. In concrete terms, by answering these questions:
- Has shipping and other maritime activity actually increased?
- Has the activity increase actually resulted in an increased level of risk and more accidents?
- What role does the institutional build-up of the emergency preparedness and response system play?
- What capacities are available and what are the results of the emergency preparedness and response efforts?
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The maritime activity in Greenlandic waters has developed differently in different sectors. While the activity in passenger traffic, transport of goods, and fishery has been fairly stable for a number of years, there have been changes in oil exploration and tourist shipping activities in the last ten years.
- An increase of navigation in connection with oil exploration took place from 2009 to 2013 from 2-3 ships and 8-9 voyages to 21 ships and 97 voyages a year. But in 2013 the numbers were back at the same level as in 2009. Since then, it has decreased further.
- In the case of tourism, the situation is more diverse as the number of large tourist cruise ships with more than 500 passengers has fallen, while the number of smaller ships with less than 500 and especially less than 200 passengers has increased. The total number of vessels has increased from more than 60 in 2011 to more than 90 in 2014 and even more since then.
So, expectations that the maritime activity would increase as a result of climate change are only partly true for Greenlandic waters.
There has been an increasing emergency rescue activity in Greenlandic waters, where the majority of the vessels involved have been small boats under 30 feet.
- But the average rescue rate is relatively high, as it has been between 93.3% and 98.1% in the last 5 years. It should be seen in relation to the overall aim of the authorities of an average rescue rate of 94 percent. It would of course be best if 100% was saved, but for natural reasons it may not always be possible.
- The most serious risks are accidents involving large tourist cruise ships in distress, which will require enormous resources for search and rescue and will have enormous consequences for the potential number of casualties.
The reasons for this are the special conditions in the Arctic, the cold climate, the scattered settlement, the great distances, the limited infrastructure and the limited emergency preparedness and response capacities.
The emergency preparedness and response system in Greenland is handled by a combination of Danish authorities and Greenland authorities, which requires clear lines, good coordination and good cooperation between the parties involved. Most of the tasks are carried out by the Greenland Police and the Joint Arctic Command. The Danish Armed Forces in Greenland, thus, perform both military tasks and a number of civilian tasks, including emergency preparedness and response activities, which are of great importance for societal security.
- One problem is long distances and unstable weather conditions and thus the long response time. The concentration of emergency preparedness and response capacities in Nuuk and on the West Coast increases this problem.
- This is illustrated by the incident in August 2015 where the Joint Arctic Command from the air observed a suspected oil spill in the Danish Strait between Greenland and Iceland and planned an inspection of the suspected oil pollution at sea level.
Due to great distance and bad weather, it lasted five days before the closest vessel available for the Joint Arctic Command arrived. At that time, however, the suspected oil spill had disappeared.
As statistics show, capacity is sufficient for the everyday search and rescue tasks within the stated objectives. The problem, then, is mass accidents with larger cruise ships.
- In the summer of 2016 and 2017, the cruise ship Crystal Serenitysailed with 1,700 people aboard from Vancouver through the Northwest Passage to Ilulissat and along Greenland's west coast to Nuuk, from where it continued to New York.
- According to the Danish Emergency Management Agency, available capacities in Greenland would be insufficient if an accident were to occur, and assistance from Denmark would not be possible in due time.
The MARPART project points out that the preconditions for success for search and rescue operations under such conditions are the establishment of a well-functioning regional or international cooperation.