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FAIRBANKS - A multi-national council this spring recommended northern countries, including the United States, adopt uniform and mandatory rules for construction of ships that access the Arctic Ocean, where thinning ice and increasing resource development should accelerate commercial shipping.
Shipping through the ice-covered ocean - a basin ringed by major fisheries, bookended by land-based mining projects, and host to high-profile oil and gas leasing - has risen, but rules and guidelines for shipbuilders and Arctic countries vary or, where standardized, remain voluntary, the council reported in a major assessment of arctic shipping.
The call for harmonized standards and laws, made through an Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment led by the eight-nation Arctic Council, comes as researchers consistently find signs that Arctic ice has thinned drastically and analysts mull the potential ramifications. The group cites scientific indications the Arctic's year-round ice cover could contain melting spots and channels within a few years.
But Lawson Brigham, a former icebreaker captain now serving as professor of geography and arctic policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, said Wednesday that despite that melting, the ocean remains - and will remain - ice-covered for most of the year, justifying calls for comprehensive standards uniform enough for shipbuilders, shipping companies, national governments and others to follow regardless of home port or location.
"It is highly plausible there will be greater marine access and longer seasons of navigation, except perhaps during winter, but not necessarily less difficult ice conditions for marine operations," the assessment's summary states.
Brigham, who outlined the assessment project's April report at a Wednesday presentation in Fairbanks, served as chairman of the five-year assessment project. Led by Canada, Finland and the United States, the project aimed to weigh regional, local and circumpolar perspectives, focusing on shipping activity past, current and future in Arctic waters.
The United Nations-affiliated International Maritime Organization has drafted voluntary standards covering many aspects of marine policy for Arctic States to follow, according to the assessment report. But such measures, Brigham said, would be more effective in protecting the Arctic environment and improving safety if the standards were mandatory and uniform across national boundaries.
Since the report's release in late April, the IMO has begun to weigh such a proposal, Brigham said, and it looks poised to adopt the plan.
The assessment included input from a wide range of groups, including shipbuilders, northern states, insurers and shipping companies, Brigham said. The final report also recommends countries and private industry work together on legislation aimed at protecting the Arctic environment from the prospect of a major oil spill. It further suggests nations address a shortage of infrastructure such as deep-water ports, icebreakers and navigational charts, and that they work to improve traffic awareness systems.
"There is a general lack of marine infrastructure in the Arctic, except for areas along the Norwegian coast and northwest Russia, compared to other marine regions of the world with high concentrations of ship traffic," the assessment reads.
The assessment project was called for by the Arctic Council, a multinational partnership, after previous reports found "reduced sea ice is very likely to increase marine transport and access to resources." The group recommended Arctic states weigh the need to designate areas for international environmental protection. Brigham said such regions already exist in parts of the world, including one off the coast of South Africa.
Brigham's presentation was part of an ongoing lecture series hosted by the UAF-based Alaska Center for Climate Assessment & Policy.