East Siberian Sea Most Dangerous for Arctic Shipping

Ice conditions are among the riskiest factors for Arctic shipping. The German research icebreaker Polarstern in the central Arctic Ocean. (Photo: Alfred-Wegener-Institut / Mario Hoppmann (CC-BY 4.0))
The risk for ship accidents varies across different Arctic seas. The East Siberian Sea has been found to be most dangerous for ships.

The risk for ship accidents varies across different Arctic seas. The East Siberian Sea has been found to be most the dangerous.

The East Siberian Sea has been found to have the highest risk for ship collision, sinking of ships (foundering), and ships running aground, mostly because of more severe ice conditions, such as the earlier and quicker build-up of ice at the end of summer.

Winters are very cold in that area, with the mean temperature at -30 degrees C and the entire sea covered with ice. Also, during summer, 50% of the ice cover remains, which is in stark contrast to, for example, the Barents Sea, which is completely ice-free during the summer.

Furthermore, the East Siberian Sea is the shallowest of the seas along the Northern Sea Route, with a mean depth of just 52 meters. On top comes a harsh environment, remote areas, and unexplored maritime areas.

Less risk in the Barents Sea

In contrast, the Barents Sea has the lowest probability regarding ship collision and foundering events. However, foundering probabilities are very low in all five areas. The Chukchi, Laptev, Kara, and Barents Seas have almost similar probabilities regarding grounding. The authors also find that overall, accidents on the NSR are rather seldom in comparison to other maritime regions.

Arctic shipping increasingly at the center of attention

The study sees Arctic shipping increasingly on top of political agendas due to the Arctic Ocean’s natural resources, its shorter navigational routes, and Arctic seas being a pirate-free zone. However, due to potential dangers caused by the cold and harsh environment, it is vital to identify the future risk of ship accidents with regards to the increase in ship traffic in the region.

The authors used a case study of an oil-tanker navigating the Northern Sea Route (NSR). Furthermore, three different accident scenarios were included that are likely to occur during Arctic voyages, namely ship collision, foundering (sinking), and grounding. "Ship collisions may occur due to a ship’s collision with floating ice or an iceberg or a ship colliding with an escorting icebreaker", Dr. Rouzbeh Abbassi from the School of Engineering, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia told High North News

Focus on the Northern Sea Route

The study focused on the Northern Sea Route (NSR), which is touted as a potential new trade route connecting major Asian and European ports, but at the same time, it is afflicted with extreme temperatures, pack ice, multi-year sea ice effect, and severe climatic changes.

The researchers looked more closely at the five seas along the NSR, i.e. the Barents, Kara, Laptev, East Siberian, and Chukchi Seas, taking into account the different environmental and operational conditions in these areas, ranging from pack ice effect, environmental obstacles, the combined effect of wind and wave, to emergency assistance.

New risk model

The paper proposes a new risk model, shedding light on the causes of shipping accidents on the NSR to quantify the risk of transit on Arctic routes. "The basic idea of this model is to estimate the risk associated with marine transportation in Arctic waters considering operational and environmental factors particular to this region", Dr Abbassi, one of the authors of the study, told HNN.

The innovative aspect of the model is that is has been developed by having up-to-date real field data for different wave states and wind speed based on recorded data from Arctic weather stations. "The model thus has the capacity to be updated anytime with newly provided data based on observation of existing environmental and operational factors, and hence will provide a more precise estimation of the risk associated with the voyages", Dr Abbassi explains.

Furthermore, until today, no risk study has divided the NSR into different regions. In contrast, the new study can take into account the environmental differences between various marine areas along the NSR.

Why ship accidents happen

There are different operational and environmental factors that affect shipping operations. Operational factors encompass human error such as human fatigue, lack of technical knowledge of ship systems, poor communication, faulty policies, practices, and standards, or navigation failures. Other factors include tug assistance failure, fault of the vessel itself, for example loss of power in the danger area, or loss of propulsion of the vessel.

Environmental factors causing ship accidents include wave height, wind speed, sea current, surrounding temperature, harsh weather effect, and different levels of ice along the NSR route. Ice has been found to be a dominant factor in accident causation, such as pack-ice and non-detected multi-layer ice. Combinations of these factors are also important; wind speed and pack ice together can make for dangerous icing conditions.

Mitigation measures

The authors conclude that early warning to take appropriate preventive and mitigation measures are crucial to enhance the overall safety of shipping operations. "On the basis of our research, policy-makers can narrow down major risk factors that may affect navigation in Arctic waters", Dr Abbassi explains. "To mitigate the risk associated with marine transportation in Arctic waters, management professionals can emphasizes higher training and better technical knowledge to prepare ships for Arctic voyages."

The study can also help preparing for varying conditions in different geographical locations along the NSR. "Our study revealed that the East Siberian Sea is more prone to all three types of accidents. Therefore, here is a region to which policy-makers can place more attention", Dr Abbassi concludes.