Celebration of the expansion of the WWNWS into Arctic waters
7 March 2011
Address by Mr. E.E. Mitropoulos, Secretary-General, IMO
Secretary-General Jarraud, Admiral Maratos, Mr. Doherty, distinguished delegates and observers,
I welcome you all to this celebration on the occasion of the expansion of the World-Wide Navigational Warning Service into Arctic waters.
Until fairly recently, the Arctic was a region more associated with exploration and research than with regular industry, commerce and navigation. It was considered to be an area very much on the outer limits. Traditionally, only a handful of businesses have ventured into the Arctic and fewer still have been able to flourish and prosper. Thinking of the region, one would be prompted to think of the highly specialized oil and gas industries of Alaska, Norway and Russia, as well as of commercial fishing activities in the Barents, Bering and Norwegian seas.
Things are now changing – and, among those that do, most noticeable is the blanket of ice that covers Arctic waters for much of the year and which is drastically reducing, both in terms of its overall extent and of its thickness. Climatologists report that ice loss is accelerating at unprecedented rates and the predictions are that the Arctic may be ice-free in summer within a relatively short time frame.
The implications are obvious. Arctic waters are becoming increasingly accessible to humans and there will be no shortage of enterprises looking to take advantage of the resources of these areas as they come within reach. Not only will the established hydrocarbon extraction and fisheries sectors look to expand their activities, there will also be tempting opportunities for trade, shipping and tourism at high latitudes.
At the same time, Arctic weather also seems to be changing. And, as Mr. Jarraud might confirm, the once-dependable high and low pressure systems that govern the Arctic storm seasons are now alternating more frequently and less predictably. As a result, there are, for those active in the area, more frequent and more violent storms to contend with.
The combination of expanding business activity with conditions of less predictable, more extreme weather, adds up to increased risk. Under such circumstances, the potential for accidents and for causing environmental harm through operational mishaps in the Arctic is rising, while the effectiveness of search and rescue services and clean-up resources is inevitably stretched to extreme limits. In such a scenario, the existence of reliable services to provide accurate early warning advice to maximize operational safety and minimize environmental damage becomes paramount.
Today, as we mark the expansion of the World-Wide Navigational Warning Service into what has been for centuries an inhospitable arena, it would be useful to go back to the genesis of this significant development. It was in 2005 that, following an initial submission to the Maritime Safety Committee by the Russian Federation and subsequent comments and information from Norway, IMO first began to address the issue, the detailed consideration of which the MSC assigned to the COMSAR Sub-Committee. One year later, the Sub-Committee established a joint IMO/IHO/WMO correspondence group on Arctic Maritime Safety Information services to undertake an in-depth study of the matter – which it did with satisfactory results.
To no small measure, the success of the group is owed to Peter Doherty, of IHO, to whom I wish to pay tribute for his energetic and diligent leadership and for the enormous amount of time he has spent and effort he has made. His contribution is recognized and greatly appreciated.
Based on the outcome of the work of the correspondence group and the COMSAR Sub-Committee, the Maritime Safety Committee was able, in 2007, to approve the limits of five NAVAREAs proposed for the Arctic region. One year later, WMO did the same with the limits of five new METAREAs being identical to those of the NAVAREAs.
In 2008, the COMSAR Sub-Committee opted for a common broadcast system for Maritime Safety Information for the Arctic region, thus negating the need for separate national distribution services for MSI promulgation under the GMDSS. COMSAR 12 further agreed that, until such time as an Arctic satellite service-provider under the GMDSS was available, high-frequency narrow-band direct printing would provide a viable alternative means of promulgation of MSI beyond the high latitude limits of Inmarsat coverage.
One year later, in 2009, the COMSAR Sub-Committee endorsed the recommendation of the correspondence group that live testing of the Arctic NAVAREA/METAREA operations should be planned in the 2009 and 2010 time frame.
That the agreed timetable was kept as originally envisaged is, to a large extent, due to the active participation of IHO and WMO in the provision of both training for, and technical support to, the new Arctic NAVAREA Coordinators and the METAREA Issuing Services. We thank them most warmly for that.
Last June, the three Organizations jointly announced the establishment of the agreed five new Arctic NAVAREAs/METAREAs as part of the expansion of the World-Wide Navigational Warning Service into Arctic waters. These are currently in an “Initial Operational Capability” (IOC) stage with the transition to “Full Operational Capability” (FOC) status expected to be effected in June.
It is to mark the milestone of us moving in areas largely unfamiliar, in terras incognitas, that the Secretary-General of WMO, Mr. Jarraud, and the President of IHO, Admiral Maratos, are with us here today, to celebrate an achievement, thanks to which (and to the services the appointed coordinators – Canada, Norway and the Russian Federation – will provide) ships operating in the harsh arctic environment will be able to automatically receive vital navigational and meteorological information, which they may need in order to sail safely and with due regard to the environmental sensitivities of the arctic waters.
The opening up of the Arctic will be a double-edged sword. Depending on your perspective, it represents either a world of new business opportunities or, on the other hand, an unwelcome extension of the human footprint into areas still, at the moment, predominantly pristine. But I am confident that, balancing the two extremes and with measures such as those we inaugurate today, the pioneering venture in the new frontiers will be met with universal approval. Let us, therefore, work together to create the conditions that will allow the opportunities the Arctic presents to flourish in a framework of utter safety and environmental protection.
Ladies and gentlemen,