The tragic story of the Exxon Valdez is a reminder that, while such incidents can happen anywhere in the world, the Arctic region poses particular dangers. For the waters where the accident took place, in Prince William Sound, have always posed immense challenges for crews. Much of the year icebergs float freely down the shipping lane and on the night of the tragedy the ship's captain requested the coast guard to guide the tanker, helping it to steer a safe journey through the ice. Undertaking such a hazardous operation in the middle of the night would have been difficult enough for anyone, but for a crew that was overtired and led by a captain with a history of alcoholism it proved impossible, and the tanker struck Bligh Reef just after midnight on 24 March 1989.
Accidents are not only much more likely to happen in the Arctic's supremely challenging natural environment, but are also far more difficult to respond to. Environmentalists point to all sorts of dangers, such as a severe shortage of natural light in winter, extreme cold and high winds that would make it extremely difficult to respond to an oil spill should it ever happen. 'The Arctic offers the highest level of ecological sensitivity and the lowest level of capacity to clean up after an accident', as James Leaton, an adviser to the WWF, has said. 'This combination makes it unacceptable to expose the Arctic to an unfettered scramble for oil.'18
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