The Arctic Ocean is at the centre of the Arctic and Northern Atlantic region and is bordered to the south by the North Atlantic Ocean. The Arctic Ocean is bounded by 8 different countries; Norway, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Canada, United States, and Russia.
It contains a number of islands which include smaller landmasses such as Bear Island (NO), the Spitzbergen archipelago (NO), Ellesmere Island (CAN), Novaya Zemlya (RUS) and many more, with Greenland (DEN) being the largest of these Islands.
The Arctic region is a unique area among Earth’s ecosystems. At the pole, we find ice coverage the size of which changes from year to year dependent upon climactic variations. The region acts as a regulator of the earth’s climate, and in recent decades the Arctic has been warming at almost twice the global average rate.
The Atlantic Region stretches from the United Kingdom and Ireland down to the northern shores of Spain and Portugal, encompassing all of the Netherlands and parts of Germany, Denmark, Belgium and France. The North Atlantic is one of the richest oceans in the world, but it is also one of the most heavily used. Together, the Arctic and Northern Atlantic region (ANA) is characterised by presence of economically important marine activities and infrastructure, sparse to high-density population areas, challenging marine conditions, inhospitable landscapes, diverse and often extreme climates, and ocean areas bordered by cliffs, fjords and mountains which are difficult to access.
The ANA region has traditionally been important in terms of fisheries and fisheries-related activities. Increasingly, the region is experiencing more attention, resulting in greater traffic, and increased human activity. This stems from a number of factors including but not limited to increased tourism, fishing, and the presence of fossil fuels. Different types of vessels in the region include: tourism related vessels, transport vessels such as liquefied natural gas (LNG) and oil tankers, bulk ships and container vessels, offshore service and exploration vessels, research vessels and naval fleet vessels including submarines. The increase in cruise vessel traffic is one of the key concerns for many Arctic countries, especially as such vessels are growing in size, numbers of passengers are increasing, and shrinking sea ice is opening up the Northwest Passage. Cruise ships regularly take passengers to see Polar Bears, Seals and the Northern Lights, and there has been a 36% increase in the last 2 years in the Artic region alone.
In terms of fishing, the Arctic ocean is home to one of the few sustainable and highly valuable cod stocks left in the world and houses exciting new species such as the King crab. Activity which was once seasonal in the region is now seen all year round. New technological innovations and vessel design offer icebreaking capacity to cargo ships, cruise vessels and research vessels extending their operational season and activity beyond the usual range. Oil and gas installations in the region will gain greater importance in the next 20-50 years, representing important energy resources. There are uncharted and highly lucrative oil reserves to feed the still increasing demand for fossil fuels. The region is now a highly important economic trade route with increasing infrastructure. New shipping routes are opening up due to changes in the ice coverage, providing new routes for the transport of goods from east to west. The Northwest Passage is still the most lucrative shipping lane in the Arctic.
Experts estimate that shipping time may be cut by 40% if the Northwest and Northeast passages were ice-free all year. These deep-water shipping lanes also allow for larger, heavier ships than the Panama Canal, which would increase trade, profit, and activity even further.
It is widely acknowledged that seaborne disasters and security threats will result from the opening of the Northern passages, and increasing operations in the ANA region, urgently requiring more open cooperation amongst governments, industry, and security organisations across many jurisdictions. Transnational maritime threats include territorial disputes and armed conflicts, piracy, terrorism, collisions and accidents, natural disasters and climate change, and pollution and environmental impacts.
Attacks on significant infrastructure like oil and gas supplies within the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans would have economic ramifications and far-reaching consequences for the EU and the rest of the world. A major fire on a large cruise ship in the Arctic, for example, could result in significant loss of life.
Key challenges for Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the ANA region include long distances, severe weather, ice and cold conditions, a poor communications network, lack of infrastructure and limited resources. In addition, the limited capacity to host patients, the need for coordinated situational awareness, and the need for specialized evacuation and survival equipment pose major challenges for maritime safety and SAR in the Arctic. Increased traffic on transpolar shipping routes expected in the near future, could prove a big challenge for the communications infrastructure. Communications satellites operating in geostationary Earth orbit do not cover the area of the Arctic. Even when a link can be made, it can be prone to interruption from icing on antennas, or from disruption caused by heavy seas.