Experts: Canada must step up Arctic charting
More near disasters likely in Nunavut waters
OTTAWA — Canada should outfit the hulls of its future fleet of Arctic patrol boats with multibeam sonar to help chart Arctic seaways around Nunavut, a mapping expert told the ArcticNet conference Dec. 16 in Ottawa.
Otherwise there will be more near-disastrous incidents, like the Sept. 1 grounding of the tanker Nanny near Gjoa Haven and that of the cruise ship Clipper Adventurer, whose sight-seeing detour in the Coronation Gulf left it marooned Aug. 27 on a shoal 90 kilometres east of Kugluktuk, John Hughes Clarke, head of the University of New Brunswick’s ocean mapping group, told conference participants.
Hughes Clarke, who said Arctic shipping safety should be as big a priority as Arctic sovereignty, said there’s a need for denser charting coverage and better communication of all existing charting information.
But with sovereignty and climate change ranking as the top Arctic concerns, Hughes Clarke worries the potentially life-threatening ship groundings of last summer have seen swept under the carpet.
The Nanny and the Clipper Adventurer are both back in operation, with the Clipper Adventurer even slated for a return to the cruise market.
But the Clipper Adventurer, which had at least a dozen watertight compartments breached when it hit an underwater shoal, came perilously close to sinking even as it was towed away Sept. 14 with the help of four commercial tugs.
And had the weather been bad when the Clipper Adventurer first grounded, the incident might have resulted in the loss of the ship, loss of life and damage to the environment from escaping fuel and ballast water, Hughes Clarke and other mappers at the ArcticNet conference said.
As it happened, the Clipper Adventurer merely teetered on the edge of an underwater cliff — with 75 per cent of its underside on the top of the cliff and the other 25 per cent hanging over the edge of the cliff.
The shallow place where the cruise ship ran aground, about 100 kilometres east of Kugluktuk, has been known since 2007, when the Coast Guard issued a Notice to Shipping in 2007.
But it’s the responsibility of ships’ officers to update their charts and note these hazards when they are issued.
Right now, they may or may not do this.
The Marine Safety Board inquiry into the Clipper Adventurer’s grounding has not yet assigned any blame or produced any recommendations in connection with last August’s grounding.
But with more shipping traffic expected in and around the Northwest Passage, there’s an urgency to increase Arctic mapping, Hughes Clarke said.
“We are taking risks,” he said.
Sparse may be too generous a word to describe the state of mapping off Nunavut, according to charts shown at the ArcticNet’s annual gathering on Arctic science.
Past helicopters landing on ice in the Arctic have taken spot sonar readings spaced six km apart in many places.
Coast Guard icebreakers, like the Amundsen, which has multibeam sonar and other equipment it can use for seabed mapping, have also been able to increase the amount of the Arctic that has been charted — but only by a small amount.
There are still lots of the surprises for Arctic navigators, because there’s no indication what lies between the charted spots done by helicopter.
And even recently-mapped channels are only often about 100 metres wide.
The only way to improve safety for the increasing volume of shipping that’s expected in Arctic waters is to increase the amount of three-dimensional undersea mapping, Hughes Clarke said.
And he said there is need to take advantage of vessels like the proposed Arctic patrol boats to increase the mapping, and in the shallowest waters use smaller platforms launched from them, like the Amundsen’s barge.
Thanks to this barge, only equipped in 2010 with multibeam sonar equipment, the Amundsen was able to find a safe route for the Clipper Adventurer.
At the time, the cruise vessel lay more than 50 miles from the nearest known safe shipping lane — too far away for an airborne rescue operation by helicopter.
When the Amundsen got as close as it could to the Clipper Adventurer, researchers used the barge, which can navigate in shallow water, to safely map a course for the icebreaker and do survey of the area immediately around the grounded cruise ship.
But there are ways “we avoid the same fate as the Clipper Adventurer,” even without more mapping, Hughes Clarke said.
Ships can “just say no” to going anywhere off known shipping lanes or try to expand them cautiously — as was done over hundreds of years in the North Atlantic off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.
For now, it can be perilous to go even into mapped areas in the Arctic.
The Amundsen has run into unexpected underwater formations within mapped areas, Hughes Clarke told, such as the time when the vessel came within two metres of the sea bottom in the Hudson Bay that didn’t appear on charts — a serious situation for a huge icebreaker with needs at least eight metres of water to sail safely.
Ideally, ocean bottom mapping should be done at transects of every 100 or 300 metres throughout the Arctic, he said.
Hughes Clarke would like to see extra ship and barge time allotted for surveys to develop more safe and larger corridors.
To accelerate mapping, he said there should also be more private industry mapping and more charting missions.
Mapping is also something the Navy’s five Arctic patrol boats could do once they are deployed, Hughes Clarke suggested.
“While we wait for the invasion, I hope that they will map,” he said.