‘Bon Voyage’ through the Arctic: Exploring new horizons for India

Amid climate change, the region has opened up new opportunities and challenges: Navigating ships there requires specialised training

Capt. M. Chandra | November 27, 2023


#Maritime   #Transport   #Climate Change   #Environment   #Arctic   #Trade  
Sailing through the Arctic: Transporting goods,Transforming lives (Photo courtesy: the author)
Sailing through the Arctic: Transporting goods,Transforming lives (Photo courtesy: the author)

India's tryst with trade through the Arctic regions, including the Northern Sea Routes (NSR), has become an impact-making endeavor recently. The Arctic of yore is now a pivot – point of geopolitics, of climate change discussions, and for economic opportunities; 40% of oil and gas reserves said to be here – for equitable sustainable development goal. Murmansk, known as the capital city of Arctic region, is the waypoint 1 for Bon-Voyage signature for Nor-Northern Sea Routes.

Climate change with its all the negatives has one of the plus factors too and that is the melting of ice caps which beaconed for the pliable passage for longer duration than usual around the year  through the northern sea routes; east and west regions.

History has markings of our involvement in Arctic research. Arctic dialogue is one such epoch-making event. India had its destiny tied with this region since the early 20th century when the renowned scientist Sir J. C. Bose experimented with research work on aurora boreaolis, or northern lights, a common catch-phrase in the tourism industry. India's formal engagement with the Arctic Council as an Observer began in 2013. The council is an intergovernmental forum which promotes cooperation and coordination among Arctic states.

Since the Svalbard Treaty of February 1920 in Paris, India has been witness to all the developments in the Arctic region. India's ‘Himadri’ research station, located in Ny-Ålesund, Svalbard, is a critical and strategic asset in its Arctic engagement. This station facilitates research in various fields, including climate studies, atmospheric research, and biodiversity monitoring. Himadri is strategically located to let us maneuver and actively contribute to Arctic science and so to enable our engagement in international collaborations. It facilitates our understanding of climate change and its impact on the Arctic to get key policy deliverables with data-driven decisions.

Sustainable development is at the heart of India's Arctic policy. The Barents Sea, located to the northwest of Russia and Norway, is a key focus area as Atlantic to Pacific Oceans’ connect is not possible without this link-sea. India has its focus on promoting responsible resource extraction and environmental conservation in this region. Collaborative efforts with Arctic nations aim to strike a balance between economic growth and environmental protection.

Why Arctic so Important to INDIA?

Key Reasons  /  Significance of the Arctic Region for India

Climate Impact:
India’s economic growth and water scarcity for future depend on vulnerability of the region due to climate change.

Trade
:     Shorter trade route, particularly for India’s sea-borne trade and also an alternative route to Suez transit—a game changer impact for recently announced corridor through Middle-east-Europe-rail-road-sea corridor.

Economic Development: India’s economic development in the Arctic aligns with UN Sustainable Development Goals. Cargo traffic has risen with growth rate of 73% during 2018-22.

Global Influence:
Collaboration, cooperation and consultation for coexistence with theme of ‘one earth ,one family, one future’ – to put stamp of India, signifying it’s presence

Historical Engagement
: India’s connection dates back to the Svalbard Treaty in 1920, with ongoing scientific studies and Arctic Council participation.

Natural Resources: Arctic region has about 40% unexplored hydrocarbon reserves and valuable minerals, contributing to India’s resource needs.

The Arctic region, with its vast expanse of ice and frigid-waters, has long captured the imagination of explorers and adventurers. Now as the silver lining in dark clouds of climate change, it has become a focal point for global shipping due to the melting of polar ice caps due earth warming. It has opened up new opportunities and challenges for maritime transportation.
Navigating ships in the Arctic region, particularly through the NSR, requires specialised training and poses unique challenges. This article explores the intricacies of ship navigation in the Arctic, focusing on the NSR, and delves into the training aspects necessary to ensure safe and efficient maritime transportation by skilled professionals – India being the key global supplier of competent seafarers.

With the reduction of ice cover in the Arctic, the NSR has gained strategic importance as an alternative transit route, which can save time, fuel, and costs for shipping companies.

Navigating ships in the Arctic presents a unique set of challenges due to its extreme environmental conditions, which includes icebergs and pack ice for vessels, ice and image hulls, propellers, and other ship components, making navigation hazardous. Extremely low temperatures can impact the performance of ship systems and machinery, leading to equipment failures and reduced operational efficiency. The Arctic has a short window of navigability, primarily during the summer months when ice coverage is at its minimum. Vessels must make the most of this limited time frame. Oil-pollution related damages, insurance related matters along with bunkering infrastructures and other repair/maintenance infrastructure developments in the region is a challenge to meet with; but pegged with an opportunity to gain foothold for employment and development.

Given the unique challenges of navigating the Arctic, specialised training is essential for seafarers, ship officers and crew members. The training needs to include understanding ice types, recognising ice conditions, and using icebreakers when necessary. Training should cover how to operate and maintain ship systems in extreme cold temperatures by use of high-end full mission simulators for ice navigation. It also should cover training for adaptation modules of Indian seafarers, of tropical demography to be able to work longer in sub-zero temperatures. This also includes preventing the freezing of critical components and handling cold-related emergencies. Crew members should be trained in Arctic-specific emergency response procedures, including dealing with ice-related incidents, oil spills, and medical emergencies. Training should focus on self-sufficiency in remote areas. Familiarity with advanced navigation technology, such as ice charts, satellite imagery, and radar systems, is crucial for safe navigation. Training programmes should score the importance of protecting the fragile Arctic environment. The IMO’s Polar Code sets safety and environmental standards for ships operating in polar waters. Training should ensure compliance with these regulations. Realistic simulations with VR- and AR-fed exercises are important for navigation to counter extreme weather conditions, latitude depressions, and so the emergency responses in not so busy traffic route to get collaborative help.

Given that many Arctic areas are in Russian territory, having Russian language-skilled crew can be advantageous for communication with local authorities and pilots. Russia plays a pivotal role in Arctic navigation, as a significant portion of the NSR falls within its territorial waters; EEZ.

The Chennai-Vladivostok Maritime Corridor (CVMC) project, an outcome of the signing of the memorandum of intent between the two countries in September 2019, is going to be game-changer container transit through the NSR.

The 10,500 km-long CVMC, passing through the Sea of Japan, the South China Sea and Malacca Strait will bring down the transport time to 12 days, almost a third of what is taken under the existing St. Petersburg-Mumbai route of 16,000 km.

Coking coal (used by steel companies), crude oil, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and fertilisers are some of the cargo that can be imported from Russia to India through CVMC.

To conclude, navigating ships in the Arctic region, Northern Sea route presents both challenges and opportunities for the maritime industry. As the Arctic ice continues to melt, the region's importance particularly through the Northern strategic point for global shipping is likely to increase.

It is worthy to quote former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, “Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty, advancing economic growth…. these are one and the same fight. We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security and women’s empowerment. Solutions to one problem must be solutions for all.” Navigating through NSR is the eureka time for the dots and passage through it as endeavour of connecting them and providing solutions for employment across gender, food security, energy bank and conservation of the planet.

Capt. M. Chandra is Director, Indian Maritime University, Navi Mumbai Campus.

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