The hidden environmental cost of Arctic ‘blackspots’, by Carole Plessy, OneWeb Maritime

By Carole Plessy, OneWeb Maritime

Warming oceans have opened vast swathes of Arctic waters that were once encased in ice. This has triggered an increase in maritime activity exploring this newly-accessible area, but the region’s delicate ecosystem and changing composition means that the influx of vessels poses a serious environmental risk.

In 2017, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) introduced the Polar Code, an international agreement of which part mandates that all ships in the Arctic carry Automatic Identification System (AIS) equipment. This supports the maritime equivalent of Air Traffic Control in monitoring the increased volume of shipping in both the Arctic and Antarctic, by requiring ships to transmit their identity and position to other nearby vessels and shore stations using radar and radio communications.

AIS suffers from a major limitation, as Earth’s curvature limits its horizontal range to about 74 km from shore. LEO satellite powered connectivity provides the perfect solution, as satellites can collect these messages and help them be distributed beyond coastal regions to authorities anywhere on Earth.

However, the poles currently suffer from inconsistent connectivity, which means there is a high risk of Arctic authorities not being made aware of vessels in their waters. This can have devastating effects. Commercial fishing is banned across the Arctic to protect the delicate ecosystems that may be impacted by development creeping North. But as the industry expands into Arctic regions and climate change alters the habitats of many desirable fish species, the appeal of this fragile environment to commercial fishing fleets will grow.

OneWeb’s recently-announced uninterrupted and effective coverage across the Arctic will enable real-time monitoring of ship location, preventing criminal activity such as this from slipping under the radar.

It will also help protect from accidental Arctic environmental damage. Increased shipping in these channels could also potentially produce more oil spills and accidents. Poor communications service across the Arctic means that today, vessel accidents are at high risk of not being detected as quickly as they could be, resulting in catastrophic oil spills or shedding of harmful material into the ocean.

Without improved communications, shipping companies can also lose track of hazardous assets such as oil rigs. In 2013, a Shell drilling rig ran aground in Alaska which, had it been lost sight of completely, could have resulted in serious environmental harm. This demonstrates the critical need for OneWeb’s high-speed, low-latency connectivity enabling real-time coverage of all Arctic activity, minimising the impact of human expansion into this untraveled path.

Additionally, a report by Lloyds of London discussing the need to develop standards for insurance across the region calls for an international standard of connectivity when operating in the Arctic. Such a policy would prevent the provision of insurance to a vessel should the companies fail to demonstrate their capacity and intention to uphold faultless communications. Both human and environmental search and rescue efforts would be hampered by an inability to rapidly locate ships, thus our reliable and affordable coverage across the polar region would provide invaluable protection for both vessels and the surrounding environment.

The remoteness of the Arctic makes rescue or pollution clean-up operations difficult and costly, and even more concerning is the knowledge that the region has a major influence on everything from food production to global sea levels to climate. This means that what happens there matters everywhere else, rendering it imperative that, as economic development increases, the Arctic is quickly brought within the umbrella of connectivity.

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