A fully-loaded tanker carrying diesel fuel struck an ice floe and started taking on water last week while traveling the Northern Sea Route.
The 453-foot Russian-flagged tanker Nordvik is rated to travel in non-Arctic seas in thin ice, but collided with an ice floe in Matisen Straight, causing a hole that resulted in water ingress. The Northern Sea Route Administration had given the vessel permission to sail in the Kara Sea and the Laptev Sea, two of the most northern seas. There are as yet no reports of diesel fuel spills in the area, and the vessel was reportedly traveling toward Murmansk.
A graphic of sea ice concentrations shows ice in that region, though the majority of the passage is shown to be ice-free.
A Russian union spokesperson said the accident is an example of the need for more emergency response capacity in the region prior to allowing vessels to travel in the Arctic seas.
"Yesterday's accident was a direct threat to the lives of sailors and the ecology of the Arctic," Aleksander Bodnya says to the union's web site. "Vessels like that should not be sailing on NSR, simply because they are not capable of withstanding the ice conditions."
Alaska's state officials responded with similar concern, saying the incident illustrates why Alaska and the United States need to continue to push an Arctic marine safety and life safety agenda.
"We have an Arctic Council agreement signed this year to help each other in cleanup, but need more work in prevention," said Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, one of the state officials who has been leading Arctic policy efforts, in an email.
Treadwell said one of the proposals from the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment includes a mandatory code defining what kind of ships can make these voyages.
"Russia and other nation's crude oil and product tankers now come through the Bering Strait, through waters that are a major food source for Alaskans and the world," Treadwell said. "They should have contingency plans and the support of an oil spill response organization in case of a problem. That is not cheap, but we have to find a way to make it happen."
In 2012, 46 ships sailed the entire length from Europe to East Asia. In 2013, administrators of the Northern Sea Route had granted permission for more than 400 ships to sail.
The accident was initially reported in the Barents Observer, which is based in Norway. The website also recently reported the opening of its first Arctic search and rescue center in Naryan-Mar, Russia. The country reportedly wants to open nine more centers across the Northern Sea Route by 2015, and allocated $27.6 million to do so in 2009.
Treadwell said the Arctic Council's agenda for the next two years is to work on oil spill prevention.
"This incident shows we are talking about real risks, not future, far off and theoretical ones," he said.
This article originally appeared in The Arctic Sounder and is republished here with permission.