RV Mirai’s bridge crew are somber today.  We just received the sad news of a crash of a Canadian Coast Guard helicopter in the Canadian Arctic in the area of McClure Strait north of Bank’s Island.  The reports we received here were that the helo with pilot, CCGS Amundsens’s Commanding Officer and a scientist onboard the ship went down while on an ice reconnaissance flight, and there were no survivors.  I knew the Captain and he was a good man.  There but for the grace of God go I.  Once many years ago, as Chief Officer onboard an icebreaker operating in the Beaufort Sea, the helo that I was flying in very nearly came to grief when struck with unexpected and very rapid aircraft icing forced an emergency landing.  It was about the same time of year.  I still remember the pilot sitting there, breathing heavy after our rough landing on shore fast ice…turned to me and said “That wasn’t in the flight plan”.  These things never are.

This tragedy truly speaks to the remoteness of the Arctic regions.  The nearest search and rescue resource was the icebreaker from which the helo launched.  Devoid of its only asset that could have assisted, the Amundsen was almost ineffective.  After that, CCGS Henry Larsen was the next closest several hundred miles away.  With no dedicated SAR aircraft in the north RCAF was forced to launch a Cormorant helicopter from Comox BC and a Hercules fixed wing from Trenton, ON, both airbases in southern Canada.  We in the arctic are at the end of the lines for what others take for granted.  And when the crews of the scant resources that ARE up here to provide support to others need it themselves, well, its even tougher.

Recently, the Arctic Council nations bonded together and declared a treaty for provision of Search and Rescue in the Arctic.  Previous to that after many years with no formal recognition, NAV/METAREAS were finally defined for the Arctic, defining areas of responsibility for broadcast of meteorological and navigational warnings.  Canada is responsible to ensure communications in NAVAREAS XVII and XVIII, Norway for XIX and Russia for XX and XXI.  We quickly knew about the crash, but the response was not as rapid.  The new SAR declaration hasn’t yet come with new Arctic bases to launch from, or the equipment to launch for that matter.  Around the Arctic it is status quo.  

To be fair it takes years to build that kind of infrastructure, and in the Arctic even years longer and at far greater cost than in more southerly regions, close to developed infrastructure.  The most vocal promises have come from the Russians, eager to see shipping frequent the Northern Sea Route and pay for the privilege.  But if you don’t build it, they won’t come.  President Putin has promised SAR bases and increased numbers of Border Guard and other government vessels capable of carrying out SAR in the Arctic.  In 2012 the USCG ramped up a concentrated Arctic presence pre-positioning vessels and aircraft in the Arctic, but this year, scaled that effort back considerably due to cost.  Canada has not yet spoken directly of increasing SAR presence and this year has been forced to scale back its Arctic icebreaker commitments as the ageing fleet must be cycled though life cycle extensions to hopefully last until new ships are built.  But even then, only one new icebreaker is approved for construction and is not expected to be operational until after 2017 at the earliest.  The RCAF hopes to obtain new fixed wing SAR aircraft has stalled and there are no definitive plans to base any SAR air resources in the arctic in the foreseeable future. 

On September 4th the tanker Nordvik was holed by sea ice in the Kara Sea with a risk of pollution. Only because it was in the more heavily travelled Kara Sea did the Nordvik obtain support reasonably quickly, however the challenges of preventing an appreciable pollution mess are daunting.  

Whatever the incident, anything that goes wrong north of 60ºN is a problem.  Perhaps only in the Russian Eastern Arctic where multi-billion dollar hydrocarbon operators have forced better response capability is there any chance of reasonably timely response for rescue, pollution response of even repair. Elsewhere we must be as self reliant as we possibly can be. “There ain’t nobody here but us chickens” said the hens to the fox.

Capt David (Duke) Snider
Ice Navigator
RV Mirai