(3 Oct 2018) LEAD-IN:
A Finnish icebreaker has conducted an oil spill response exercise in the Baltic sea, testing a new in-built oil recovery system, a first ever for an icebreaker.
This is the Polaris.
She can collect up to 1,400 cubic tons of oil in the harshest and icy weather conditions.
The Polaris operates mainly in the Baltic sea, but can reach large parts of the Arctic Ocean during the summer months.
Heading out of Helsinki harbour on a chilly autumn morning, the mission is to test new equipment and train sailors in the rapid deployment of oil containment booms.
The highly automated system opens hatches on each side of the vessel from which inflatable barriers are deployed.
By positioning the vessel in the path of an oil spill, these booms can trap pollutants, pushing them into hull of the ship.
A skimmer with brushes then separates seawater from the oil which is stored in large tanks.
Polaris' icebreaking capabilities means the vessel can intervene in oil spills in ice infested waters, but the cold brings another set of problems: oil gets thicker in cold temperatures.
"It's unique because you can also collect oil in cold weather," says Lars Snellman from the company Lamor which developed the system. "There is heating in the system so it's easy to pump oil with very high viscosity."
Maritime traffic in the Gulf of Finland is among the densest in Europe.
Russian oil flows westwards, while container and passenger traffic sails between Helsinki and Tallinn.
"There is always the possibility of a collision, due to wind, due to fog," warns Pasi Jarvelin, the Master of Polaris. "In the wintertime, if the Gulf of Finland is frozen, it has to be an icebreaker to go through the ice to a position where we have the oil spill."
The ship's operator, Arctia Ltd is a Finnish government-owned enterprise. It hopes Baltic expertise in both icebreaking and oil spill response will inform and educate decisions made much further north.
Shipping in the Arctic is increasing for many reasons.
Tourism is one, but there is also trade and there's great interest in the untapped deposits of minerals and fossil fuels.
Increases in traffic add to the potential for oil spills from platforms and vessels operating in remote locations.
It is a major cause for concern among environmentalists, especially since the 1989 Exxon Valdex disaster off Alaska killed a quarter of a million seabirds, as well as hundreds of seals and sea otters.
Vladimir Putin recently announced plans to increase traffic on the Northern sea route connecting Asia to Europe via the Arctic from 10 million tons today to 80 million tons within 10 years.
"The use of the icebreakers for oil spill response is of course very feasible in the arctic areas as well," says Tero Vauraste, CEO of Arctia Ltd., "and it's becoming more and more important because of the fact that traffic is going to increase."
Operating in the Arctic Ocean remains challenging and dangerous.
Vessels face high risks of running aground in waters which are still poorly charted, and while thick ice may be retreating, ice flows still present a serious threat to shipping.
The World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) warns that oil spill response capabilities in the Arctic remain very limited and no comprehensive assessment of the risks has been conducted.
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