On the night of June 20, 25 years ago, the unthinkable happened. The Soviet cruise ship Maksim Gorkij sailed into drift ice. The vessel's speed was high, and the ship suffered major damage to the hull from the collision and immediately began taking on water. The situation was serious and 900 passengers and crew aboard the ship had to be rescued. An extensive effort and a number of fortunate circumstances allowed the ship to remain afloat, but it took on not more than a few hundred cubic meters of water before the ship sank. In the previous issue of Svalbardposten, Sølve Tanke Hovden, the operations officer aboard the Norwegian Coast Guard ship Senja, reflected back on the dramatic incident that could have ended horribly wrong, both in terms of human life and environmental damage.
The story of the Maksim Gorkij is important. Important because it tells of a great achievement, but not least because it is a reminder the margins for increased activity in the high Arctic waters. On the mainland there was a lot of noise when Statoil drilled the northernmost exploration well in a Norwegian part of the Barents Sea. The obvious danger is an accident can occur during drilling that leads to toxic pollution. But oil companies are forced to operate under environmental restrictions other industries aren't in the neighborhood of. Statistics also show commercial shipping poses the greatest threat of accidents and spills at sea and along the coast.
This will also be a major challenge in the High Arctic in the future, for when the ice melts and the waters farthest north become more accessible ship traffic will increase. Cruise traffic will in all likelihood continue to grow with the accessibility, but other industries will also follow suit. Fish are moving north due to warmer waters. In addition, ship traffic coming through the Northwest Passage is expected to increase steadily during the coming years. The sum of the whole is a greater likelihood something will go wrong, and then dealing with it is not about whether preparedness is good, but if it is good enough. In addition, a general surveillance of Norwegian territory is coming.
This spring the Coast Guard also closed an agreement with Lufttransport regarding Coast Guard service around Svalbard and the Barents Sea. It was Lufttransport who discovered the trawler Electron, that played cat and mouse with the Norwegian authorities. And now it is also clear the Coast Guard may be without helicopters for up to two years.
Often it is just sheer luck that allows it ends well. But clearly luck does not last forever.