With an increase in the number of vessels entering the polar circle in the Arctic, most search and rescue (SAR) specialists agree it is a matter of when, not if, an accident happens then many lives will be in grave danger. The point was being made by several speakers at the start of IQPC’s Search and Rescue Europe conference (April 8-9) held in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Maj. Gen. Stig Nielsen, commander, Arctic Command of the Royal Danish Defence Force, said the increasing incursion of cruise ships around Greenland – some carrying more than 3,000 passengers and crew – posed a major challenge, particularly as most of the vessels were not ice protected and were entering waters that have still not been properly mapped. “No matter what precautions, someday there will be an accident,” he predicted.
However, agreements with the cruise ship operators now mean that there is the ability to monitor their position virtually continuously to look out for potential dangers in advance.
The challenge would be rescuing a volume of people from such a hostile environment. Nielsen said that with a population of 57,000, mainly on the southwest side of Greenland, there were only two police helicopters with 2.2 million square kilometers to cover. “In Denmark, we have three helicopters to cover an area 50 times smaller.” Any other helicopter support would have to come from naval ships that would be unlikely to be in the vicinity. But anyone having to enter the water would have minutes, not hours, to be rescued.
Rear Admr. Georg Larusson, director general, Icelandic Coast Guard, shared Nielson’s fears. “With new Polar shipping routes through the arctic, and more cruise ships and oil and gas tankers, there is far more traffic than before.” Larusson said that the number of cruise ship passengers to Iceland had increased “300 percent in the last three years.”
The Coast Guard currently operates three Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) AS332-L1 Super Pumas, two of which are leased. In 2013 the units flew 185 missions, 54 of which were over the sea. The mission breakdown was: SAR 39 percent, HEMS 46 percent, Other 15 percent. Larusson said that the influx of tourists had resulted in an increase in the number of missions, some due to the fact that people were not aware of how quickly the environment could turn against them. There is a plan to evaluate these helicopter operations with the aim of securing three to four new helicopters between 2018-2020.
Other speakers on the first day included those representing the Joint Rescue Center Norway; Maritime New Zealand; the Portuguese Navy; Polish Maritime SAR Service; JRCC Tallinn, Estonia; the UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution; the Finnish Border Guard; and the Swedish Maritime Administration.
Related: SAR News