The region's very remoteness makes matters even worse. In the case of the Exxon Valdez, the Sound was accessible only by helicopter and boat, and this meant that relief agencies were extremely pushed to mount the fast and effective response that they had hoped to. Everything about the local infrastructure was inadequate to meet the immense demands that were placed on it during the emergency.
Even getting to the nearest town, Valdez, was extremely difficult (Map 2). Ordinarily handling only about 10 flights a day, its tiny airstrip had to be specially fitted with a temporary air traffic control tower to manage a sudden, dramatic increase to between 700 and 1,000 daily flights. Larger planes, carrying vital clean-up equipment, were forced to fly much further afield and their deliveries were then put on trucks to undertake an arduous 9-hour journey to the disaster site, although many roads were closed due to bad weather and avalanches. Valdez is, in any case, only small, with a population of just 4,000, and the sudden influx of a huge number of relief workers, officials and reporters made matters very much worse. Besides a desperate shortage of accommodation, it also had a very limited telephone network, and in the days before mobile phones, this meant that urgent calls to the outside world, requesting resources that were vital to the relief effort, simply failed to get through.
Even when equipment and personnel finally did arrive, the spill site was still 2 hours distant by boat. By 13 April the oil covered 1,000 square miles and it took 8-10 hours by boat, at a speed of 10 knots, to travel from one end of the spill to the other. As the official enquiry into the disaster points out, these were just some of the obstacles, since 'staging had to be done on scene from mobile platforms, requiring that equipment be air-dropped or delivered by boat. All of these factors exacerbated the slow delivery of clean-up equipment'. To make matters worse still, 'radio transmissions cannot travel great distances without repeaters in mountainous terrain'.19
Similar concerns were raised in the summer of 2008, when the German shipping company, Beluga, announced plans to start sailing along the Northern Sea Route without the assistance of an accompanying icebreaker.20 Beluga's critics pointed out that accidents and emergencies are much more likely without an icebreaker, and that Russian rescuers would be both distant and unreliable. The Russian authorities responded by announcing plans for what they called a 'Barents Rescue' rehearsal to take place in the summer of 2009. Organized in Varandey, which is a key export terminal for the shipping of Russian oil from the energy-rich Timan-Pechora province,
Moscow proposed that teams from Norway, Finland, Sweden, Canada and the United States would work alongside their Russian counterparts to assist a wrecked tanker threatening the environment of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug.
Environmental groups argue that no oil should be extracted or moved through the Arctic, or any other region, unless detailed contingency plans have first been drawn up. 'The ability to effectively clean up an Arctic marine oil spill is a critical component of the risk equation', argues Dr Neil Hamilton of the WWF's International Arctic Programme. 'The fact that a catastrophic spill might exceed the operating limits of existing oil spill response technologies is a strong argument for a moratorium until the response gap is filled.'21
Part of the solution to the threat of oil spills, argue organizations like the WWF, is to impose much more stringent regulations and monitoring of shipping lanes in the Arctic, and elsewhere. In particular, the WWF is currently lobbying for the Barents Sea to be designated by the International Maritime Organization as a special zone known as a 'Particularly Sensitive Sea Area' (PSSA). All shipping has to take particular care when passing through any stretch of water that is assigned this status, and it gives neighbouring coastal countries special rights to decide on the location of shipping lanes as well as new powers of traffic surveillance. The organization also wants shipping lanes to be moved much further away from the coast than they are at present - it advocates a minimum 50-mile distance instead of the present 12 - and wants to establish some 'petroleum free zones' in the vicinity of areas that are deemed to be environmentally particularly sensitive.
But the Arctic's environment is also highly challenging not because it is generally so remote and its climate so extreme but because of the speed with which it is changing as a result of global warming. Climate change is opening the region up to the outside world but it is also creating all sorts of special risks and dangers.
Was this article helpful?