When the Nordic Orion, its cargo holds filled with coal, sailed through the Northwest Passage in September, it did so with nautical charts so old that they might be up to 12 nautical miles off. By using the Arctic shipping route the Orion saved some $200,000; it is planning five more trips through the passage this summer using the very same charts.
Arctic Shipping Charts 12 miles off
"By law, any ship traveling through Canadian waters must have Canadian nautical charts on board," says Kian Fadaie, Director General of the Canadian Hydrographic Service(CHS). However the majority of the charts used in the Arctic are old and cannot be used with modern technology
such as GPS. So ships in the Arctic plot their course using landmarks such as buoys or coastal structures," she says
A branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans(DFO), CHS has been surveying and measuring Canada’s inland and coastal navigable waterways since 1883, with the help of the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) .
No small task considering Canada's long coastline, an operating budget that has been cut every year since 2006, and ever declining icebreakers to support its Arctic efforts . So, as climate change opens the Northwest Passage to more navigation, the CHS' Arctic charting is seriously lagging behind.
Although the absence of icebreakers is regrettable, according to Fadaie, there are other options at hand such as 'ships of opportunity', foreign ships in the area with the right equipment, or navy ships. The CHS is also turning to alternative technologies such as the airborne hydrographic technology Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) to conduct shallow water testing along the coast to produce coastal approach charts.
"We collaborate with other countries, private companies and academia, but we always maintain quality control over the charts because as official Canadian products , they come under strict international standards', says Fadaie.
According to a March 2013 DFO Hydrographic Evaluation Report, the lack of large Coast Guard vessels equipped with multi-beam echo-sounders does not help matters in the Arctic either.
"CCG is one of the primary beneficiaries of current chart information. Yet no large CCG vessels are presently equipped with multi-beam echo-sounders. Additional CCG vessels equipped with multi-beam echo-sounders would create opportunities for the Program to gather additional survey data over areas transited by CCG. This would especially be the case in the Arctic if CCG equipped its icebreaking vessels with this technology."
A case in point is the MV Clipper Adventurer grounding which occurred in the Arctic Ocean in August 2010, one of four that grounded that summer. The MV Clipper Adventurer grounded in an area where the depths of the waters were virtually unknown.
According to DFO's Hydrography Evaluation Report:
" The CCGS Amundsen that rescued the passengers was equipped with a multi-beam echo-sounder and had on board a qualified hydrographer. The Amundsen followed by the second rescue vessel CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, also happened to have hydrographers on board who were able to survey the immediate area surrounding the grounded vessel to ensure safe navigation for what was to be a successful rescue mission involving five tugboats, and to multibeam survey two corridors for towing the damaged ship to a safe port for temporary repairs."
The Clipper accident could have gone wrong and it could have been avoided with updates to the charts .
" As a signatory to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) Canada is responsible for providing accurate charts. The Crown is liable. The Clipper case is now in court," says Fadaie.
"You have to remember that even with all the resources, there is a very short charting window of two and half months in the Arctic, it's a very long process" she says. " So we are contemplating analyzing traffic patterns, types of cargo and ship sizes in order to chart Arctic corridors that ships can follow like highways."
According to Fadaie, even with every resource and given carte blanche to chart as much and as fast as needed, it will still take a generation to complete the charting of Canadian Arctic waters. Meanwhile as the number of ships sailing the Northwest Passage grows so does the risk of accidents and spills. A reality very well known and feared by northern aboriginals.
Will it take a catastrophe to get things moving?
It would be a devastating loss of life, and for he environment, this is not an area where you can easily send search and rescue teams. The cost of avoiding accidents is far lower than when they happen", says Fadaie