Outdated charts of Arctic waters could threaten ship safety: expert
'Abysmal' charts date back to 1800s in some cases, professor warns
Melting sea ice has drawn more cruise ship tourists to Canada's Arctic waters, but an Arctic security expert warns that centuries-old navigation charts still in use today could threaten the safety of such vessels and their passengers.
Ships still rely on some maritime charts that date back to the voyages of the British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin in the 1800s, said Rob Huebert, a political science professor at the University of Calgary.
"As the ice recedes, we are realizing that our charting is abysmal," Huebert said Thursday. "There's some areas of the Canadian North [in which] the maritime charting goes back to the Franklin days."
Navigational technology was limited in Franklin's time, Huebert said, leading to vague or inaccurate chart measurements.
"The biggest danger, of course, is that you send a vessel that is clearly too large into waters that are too shallow or too dangerous," he said.
"If you all of a sudden go into waters that you think are relatively deep and relatively safe because the chart tells you that — but it turns out the chart is wrong — that is where you have these very, very massive accidents."
Cruise-ship accidents rare in North
In August 1996, the Hanseatic cruise ship ran aground near Cambridge Bay, Nunavut, as it was carrying tourists in the Northwest Passage. No one was injured in that incident.
More recently, the Canadian cruise ship MS Explorer struck an iceberg and sank in the Antarctic on Nov. 23, forcing its 154 passengers and crew — including 12 Canadians — into lifeboats in the middle of the night.
Huebert said such cruise-ship accidents rarely happen, so potential northern cruise-goers need not worry. But he said the lack of modern charts is one risk travellers may want to consider.
They should also think about who will save them in the event of a problem, he added, noting that Canada's search and rescue resources are largely based in the southern provinces.
"When you're plunking down your $10,000 per person, are you reading the fine print saying that, 'you know what? If we do have a problem, we're on our own?'," he said.
Huebert warned that it can take the Canadian Forces more than a day to send Hercules aircraft or helicopters northward. The coast guard has ice breakers in Arctic waters during the summer, he said, but such vessels also must rely on private vessels to help out.
Coast guard officials insist that the current national search and rescue program works well in the Arctic. Officials said the organizations involved in search and rescue efforts are always looking at improvements.
Still, Huebert said, those improvements must happen quickly, so that searchers are ready for the ships that are already travelling in Canada's North.