In The Media

Someday ‘your number is going to come up’: Lagging Arctic SAR risks much: experts

by Michelle Zilio

January 3, 2013

Just imagine.

A cruise ship is passing through Canada’s Northwest Passage on a cold, dark November night when it collides with a growler — a small underwater iceberg that has broken off a larger iceberg and is nearly impossible for the captain to detect. A gash in the hull causes water to flow in, leaving the captain with no choice but to give the dreaded order — abandon ship. These simple words force all 300 passengers and 250 crew members to evacuate into lifeboats as they watch the cruise ship capsize into the depths of the black Arctic waters. Thinning Arctic ice cover and an ever expanding search for resources has shone a spotlight on Canada’s Arctic. Someday is the fourth piece in a series by James Munson and Michelle Zilio that focuses that light tightly on the ambitions, challenges and dilemmas that Canadian policy makers face as they enter 2013. For more on the series, click here. The captain triggers an emergency position-indicating radio beacon and the signal is picked up by search and rescue (SAR) authorities in Trenton, Ont. With no land in sight, the survivors must wait for a SAR helicopter or marine vessel to find them.

The only problem is that it will take more than ten hours for the closest helicopter to reach the lifeboats and the chances of a SAR marine vessel being nearby are slim to none in the High Arctic. All the while, the survivors are dealing with some of the most unpredictable boating conditions in the world — high waves, cold water, strong winds and darkness.

This scene may be hypothetical but Arctic SAR experts warn that as the Arctic thaws and the Northwest Passage opens at a rate faster than they ever could have imagined, tourism and industry-related travel will increase and, thus, so will the risk of an catastrophe in one of the more treacherous parts of the Arctic Ocean. Arctic SAR experts argue the Canadian SAR program is not equipped to deal with an accident containing mass casualties. "We’re just dancing with the devil here. It’s a low probability but a high impact event," said Ron Wallace, an Arctic expert and senior fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. "We’ve got elements of it (a SAR plan), it’s hanging together, but it’s not as comprehensive or anywhere near as material as I think would be needed to respond to a major incident."

Canada’s National SAR Secretariat, based in Ottawa, oversees the co-ordination of the National SAR Program and works with the provinces and territories to maintain the SAR services in each jurisdiction. In the event of an emergency, ships, aircraft and people traveling in the Arctic can activate an emergency position-indicating radio beacon, which is then picked up by SAR satellites and beamed back to Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Trenton. At that point, the JRCC in Trenton would work with the Canadian Forces to co-ordinate the dispatch of SAR assets. "We co-ordinate the National Search and Rescue program, but the partners that are part of that program — so mainly in this case (Arctic) the Canadian forces — they are responsible for positioning their assets where they feel they might get the best posture for a response," said Manon Langlois, chief of communications with the National SAR Secretariat.

Ground response from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) is provided at a local level. For marine response, the Canadian Coast Guard operates SAR bases in the Arctic from approximately April to November. In the winter months, there are no rescue boats in the region because of ice-covered waters. That leaves the handling of major SAR incidents to the Royal Canadian Air Force during the winter months, dispatching SAR aircraft from five locations: Comox, B.C., Gander, NL, Trenton, Winnipeg, Man. and Greenwood, NS.

While Wallace recognized Canada’s existing SAR program, he said there is room for improvement. He said that so far, the National SAR Secretariat has been lucky the accidents in the Arctic — though at times tragic — have only been minor. For instance, in August 2011, when a Boeing 737 crashed in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, Wallace said it was pure luck that the Canadian Forces were training nearby and could help with the rescue. Only three of the fifteen people aboard survived.

Arctic expert and Principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group Joseph Spears highlighted the grounding of Shell oil rig Kulluk off the coast of Sitkalidak Island in the Gulf of Alaska Monday night. A unified command consisting of the U.S. Coast Guard, Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, and other federal, state and local partners was established in response to the incident and is working with Shell to prevent a disaster.

Unsafe distance: Canada’s search and rescue aircraft have a long trip to the Arctic.*

Matthew Schofield, a spokesperson for the unified command, said Coast Guard planes and helicopters have been dispatched out of nearby Kodiak Island to monitor the rig. According to media reports Wednesday, there have been no leaks from the rig as of yet. Although the grounding technically occurred below the Arctic boundary, Spears said the incident demonstrates the risks of resource exploration in icy northern waters. "When we start doing any kind of activity, there’s things that are foreseeable and we need to be ready for it," said Spears. "The bottom line this was a very preventable incident."

Although less than one per cent of Canada’s SAR calls occur in the Arctic, experts say more frequent traffic across the Arctic waters, land and airspace will lead to an increase in SAR demands. According to a Department of National Defence (DND) backgrounder, in 2003, seven cruise ships operated in the Arctic; in 2008, that number jumped to 15. The backgrounder also said air traffic amounts to some 115,000 flights a year over the Canadian Arctic and is increasing.

Spears said the dangers of the changing environment has also affected the local communities, citing an increase in incidents of Aboriginal fishers falling through the ice that was once solid year round. As the effects of climate change become evident in the Arctic, Canada’s SAR system is struggling to keep up, according to Wallace. The main concern for Wallace is the location of Canada’s SAR assets in the southern portion of the country, thousands of kilometres away from a potential SAR scene in the Arctic. "The Canadian SAR capacity is extremely narrow right now," said Wallace. "It’s based as far south as you could possibility get in Canada, which is to me an incredible contradiction."

If a SAR aircraft is not conveniently located nearby for another exercise, the closest dispatch centre for an Arctic emergency is one of the five SAR Resource Locations, which means it could take hours for an aircraft to reach the site. For instance, flying the fastest primary SAR aircraft — the CC-130 Hercules — from Winnipeg to Resolute Bay would take approximately five hours. However, if a helicopter is needed to lift individuals from the water, it would take Canada’s fastest SAR helicopter — the CH-149 — more than 11 hours to reach Resolute Bay from Comox. That’s not accounting for required breaks for the pilot or fuel stops.

Once crews arrive on the scene, if there are any injuries requiring serious medical attention, such as major surgery, oftentimes the closest hospital is in Edmonton, said Wallace. Otherwise, medical teams have to rely on the basic first aid services available in Arctic medical centres. "I wish Canada would grow up a little bit and start to understand that it’s got real capacity issues that have to be addressed," said Wallace. "You have to accept that when you’re working in the High Arctic, things that are a 20-minute ride to the hospital in the south are fatal up there."

In the situation where Canada is not equipped to respond to a major catastrophe, the 2011 Agreement on Cooperation in Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue in the Arctic between the eight Arctic Council countries would force member states to assist Canada’s SAR team. The Agreement essentially allows a country like Russia to step in if Canada could not fulfill its SAR duties in its own Arctic territory. "If we had a major catastrophe, and Canada could not really muster the kind of capacity and support that’s needed to deal with that, we may find ourselves in the unbelieveable position of watching the Russians come over the pole and do a rescue on our land," said Wallace. "How does this make Canada look?"

But Spears said it is never too late to improve SAR response in Canada. In fact, he argued, with Canada’s chairing of the Arctic Council from 2013 to 2015, now is the time to lead SAR capabilities amongst the council’s members. To start, Spears said DND needs to replace its Fixed Wing Search and Rescue (FWSAR) aircraft like it has been promising for the past decade. Public Works said the FWSAR Secretariat will establish a new letter of interest in early 2013, but there is still no set plan to replace the 40-odd-year-old SAR aircraft. "We should be having a public-private partnership to showcase Canadian technology and use this as an example in the Arctic as here’s what we use and recommending that to other countries," said Spears. Spears and Wallace agree that the F-35 fighter jet procurement debate has taken much-needed attention away from the FWSAR replacement.

Aside from improving SAR assets, Spears said the government can also enhance SAR capabilities by reaching out to a major local resource — the people. For instance, he said the Canadian Rangers, a sub-component of the Canadian Forces located in the sparsely-populated northern areas of Canada, and local Aboriginal communities could play a more significant role in helping with skills like spotting.

With increased travel across the Arctic, Spears and Wallace agree that it’s only a matter of time until a modern-day Titanic or Sir John Franklin catastrophe occurs. "Pure black in January, 60 mile-an-hour winds, 45 below, no light — you just keep playing the numbers game. We were lucky," said Wallace. "It’s like Lotto 649. One of these days your number is going to come up."

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