Last week The Washington Post published the article Space weather is a hidden risk to Arctic cruises, and it could be a significant one. The article states the cruise ship Crystal Serenity faces a hidden risk when it sails the North West Passage in August this year - space weather.
“A strong geomagnetic storm could bring down its GPS and communication with the rest of the world. High wind, heavy seas and, most menacingly, sea ice could necessitate a rescue, and communications and positioning are necessities in bringing emergency responders,” states the article.
Space weather forecasting is about as mature in 2016 as weather forecasting was in 1930, it states.
The Crystal Cruises’ vessel will sail from Alaska, through the Canadian Arctic to Greenland and then New York with 1,050 guests and 650 crew members on board, and the voyage demonstrates growing interest in the region from the cruise industry.
The risks of space weather to Arctic shipping are generally considered much less than those posed by existing, well-known communications limitations in polar regions. The major problem for Actic shipping from a connectivity point of view is lack of service coverage, because existing and coming VSAT systems and most L-band systems do not provide optimal service beyond 75 degrees. This presents a safety risk that could hamper search and rescue efforts if an accident were to occur at these latitudes.
The issues are discussed in the context of the potential for unmanned ships in a DNV GL in an article published in The Naval Architect in 2015. The article states that geomagnetic solar storms are a risk for satellite operators, and they do have the potential to destroy satellite hardware and cause service disruption to the satellite users. On September 1 and 2, 1859, one of the largest recorded geomagnetic storms occurred. Aurorae were seen around the world, those in the northern hemisphere as far south as the Caribbean; those over the Rocky Mountains in the U.S. were so bright that their glow awoke gold miners, who began preparing breakfast because they thought it was morning. Telegraph systems all over Europe and North America failed, in some cases giving telegraph operators electric shocks.
A recent report issued by the Royal Academy of Engineering studied the possible effect of a large 1859 “Carrington event” super-storm on geostationary satellites today and concluded that “…. around 10 percent of spacecraft will experience an anomaly leading to an outage of hours to days, but most of these will be restored to normal operations in due course.”
However, according to DNV GL’s Position Paper Ship Connectivity, satellite operator Inmarsat ensures that their satellites have been specifically designed to minimise any operational and service impacts caused by space weather environment, including periods of increased radiation exposure and can boast over 200 years of on-orbit operations without service outages or permanent satellite failures directly attributable to solar storms or any other space weather event.
Availability figures are typically high for satellite communication, for example Inmarsat has a stated target of 99.9 percent for their legacy L-band network. The availability of satellite systems operating on Ku- and Ka-band will typically be lower due to rain fades. An availability figure of 99 percent or 99.9 percent will be acceptable for most applications, says DNV GL, but for some applications, e.g. remote control or safety applications, loss of connectivity, even for short periods, will be critical.
Serious About Safety
MarEx first covered concerns that industry experts raised about the safety of Crystal Serenity’s voyage in 2014, and Crystal Cruises has since worked with some of those quoted as part of its safety initiatives. The company has taken many extraordinary operational and equipment-related measures to ensure a safe voyage.
In April this year, an international mass rescue tabletop exercise was conducted to discuss coordinated response procedures to a simulated incident on board the Crystal Serenity. The exercise used the Crystal Serenity, because Crystal Cruises volunteered to participate, but the lessons learned will be used for any type of mass rescue operation in the Arctic.
The exercise involved what the U.S. Coast Guard believes was a worst case scenario: the vessel being impacted by a very large piece of semi submerged multi-year ice near the bow and along the forward starboard side. This initial scenario led to the progressive flooding of the vessel and eventually the abandon ship call, leading to a mass rescued operation.
A key issue discussed was communications between the U.S. Coast Guard, the Canada Coast Guard and the different types of search-and-rescue assets that would be deployed. However, details of the discussions are not yet publically available. “The after action report and lessons learned are currently in development,” says Alana Ingram, spokesperson for the U.S. Coast Guard.
“The U.S. Coast Guard and Canadian Coast Guard work closely on a regular basis together. This exercise reinforced our commonality in methodology. It also reinforced the preparedness, cooperation and compatibility of our emergency management systems to coordinate rescue resources laterally between countries, within our governments and then vertically to states, territories and on to local government response agencies.”
The primary responsibility for ensuring a safely manifested journey is the shipowner and operator (the master), says Ingram. These two entities are responsible for ensuring all national and international policies are followed. “We see Crystal Cruises’ efforts as both, setting the bar and good management. Any Arctic voyage, from any type of commercial or recreational vessel, should have a solid ‘float plan’ and be prepared for the worst case scenario.”
More information about the tabletop exercise is available here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.