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SAFEICE - cutting a path through icy waters

Despite dangerous conditions, more and more ships are making their ways through ice-covered Arctic waters. With increasing traffic raising the risk of accidents in this severe environment the new EU-backed SAFEICE project has embarked on a quest to make navigating the ice safer and more economical.

Image: HUT
Image: HUT

International trade and the transportation of oil are making Europe’s northern waterways – many of them narrow and iced over in winter – increasingly hectic hives of activity. At the same time, the Arctic represents an extremely fragile environment, making the prospect of maritime accidents potentially devastating to local ecosystems and hugely expensive to clean up.

The EU-backed SAFEICE project – due to start work in 2004 – aims to improve the safety, cost-effectiveness and reduce the environmental impact of Arctic navigation. This requires the weighing up of ice conditions against damage risk.

"SAFEICE will focus on developing means of improving the safety of ice navigation," explains coordinator Kaj Riska, professor of Arctic marine technology at Helsinki University of Technology (HUT). To do so, the project will carry out research in three complementary areas: ice loading on ships, design of Arctic ship structures and an integrated traffic control infrastructure. “Safeice is unique in the sense that scientists, maritime authorities and ship designers will all be participating in the same project,” says Riska.

A primary transport mode

More than three-quarters of Finland’s imports and exports – in summer and harsh winter alike – are currently carried by sea. The most important artery for import of Russian oil goes through the Baltic Sea and oil tanker traffic in other ice-covered Arctic seas such as the Okhotsk and Pechora is expected to increase sharply in the near future.

“The safety of winter navigation should be enhanced as the amount of oil transported through the Baltic Sea and other Arctic waterways is increasing significantly,” explains Riska.

Breaking through the ice

Finland and Sweden have already developed a common approach to winter navigation in the Baltic Sea. The general principle is that all ships heading for Finnish or Swedish ports are given icebreaker support. Icebreakers are specially equipped advance boats that cut a path through the ice for tankers and cargo ships to protect them and ensure the smooth flow of traffic.

The limited supply of icebreakers, however, means that local authorities only send out the advance boats for vessels complying with traffic restrictions and heading for winter ports. This means that less-prepared ships or vessels navigating open waters, while not normally navigating in ice, are left to their own devices.

This would imply an urgent need for more icebreakers near winter ports, and stricter regulations to ensure that only ships that are strong and manoeuvrable enough are allowed to navigate Arctic waters.

Riska believes that Finnish and Swedish restrictions, which classify vessels according to their ice-preparedness, should be more widely adopted in the Arctic. “The participation of Canada, Japan and Russia in SAFEICE will make it possible to focus on the safety of winter navigation on a worldwide scale,” he explains.

Shipshape sailing

Customising ships to enable them to travel through icy waters is an important factor in safe Arctic navigation. SAFEICE will look into ways of ensuring that more of the vessels coursing through the region are properly strengthened to withstand winter conditions. “We need a more direct and more transparent design approach for ships and also for the mechanisms that are used by the authorities,” Riska points out.

The project will also find ways of enhancing and improving the support infrastructure given to ships in the region. This includes furnishing vessels with better ‘ice state’ information, including real time ice charts and forecasts.

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