"Nature is in complete control in the Arctic," says Captain Henrik Kudsk

Contributor:  Andrew Elwell
Posted:  03/05/2013  12:00:00 AM EST
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Tags:   arctic | sar | kudsk

“The attitude we often have of nature is that it's something we can control,” says Captain Henrik Kudsk, who was the joint chief of Greenland Command for five years until November 2012 before his retirement from the Royal Danish Navy later this year. We only tend to think about this when something happens to show us we can’t, like when panic sets in after a snow fall on the roads. But in the Arctic, Kudsk warns that "nature is in complete control."

During his tenure Capt. Kudsk was responsible for the military defence of Greenland and its enforcement as well as taking on a Coast Guard role including Search and Rescue (SAR). He is now a Special Arctic Advisor to Admiral Danish Fleet.

“What I saw [during that five year period] was that the Arctic is going through a very dramatic change,” said Kudsk. The Arctic has always been vast and remote but “people are now coming to the Arctic in order to exploit the area because of climate change … Naval officers tend to be conservative, but I do believe in what I see and what I have seen up there is climate change. That has turned the tables totally in the Arctic.”

It's opened up commercial opportunities for more ships to reach previously inaccessible areas.

“Large areas used to be ice-locked throughout the year but now some areas are opening up during the summer time enabling access to minerals and oil and gas,” said Kudsk. “What I saw during these five years was a huge increase of external ships coming to the High Arctic. For instance, in the mid 90s I sailed in the Arctic and on the peak summer day in September every year we would probably see five ships, but in 2008 on that same day the number of external ships had increased to 34. In the three years following there was then an additional increase of 70% and I believe that’s truly exponential. The bulk of that would be cruise ships and ships searching for oil, which is what caused the immense increase.”

When was the high water-mark moment? What was it that opened Kudsk’s eyes to the effects of climate change?

“It was 2008. The ice had thawed for the first time ever all the way up the entire north east coast of Greenland. When I was sitting in my headquarters on the first day this happened I noted that in the area that was previously inaccessible to normal ships I had four cruise ships operating in fairly unchartered waters. That was one of the triggers for me to address the issues for what I felt was needed with international political action to produce a Polar Code related to access to the area to support and control the on-going commercial activities there.”

The Polar Code Kudsk refers to is a piece of legislation ratified by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) that would set out requirements for operators in the region. This includes having navigators on board who have experience of navigating in Arctic conditions and powerful search lights. The last Kudsk heard the Polar Code was scheduled to be implemented in late 2013.

The 2007 Explorer ship wreck was another example of the need for a Polar Code, according to Kudsk. Every ship operating in the region needs to have appropriate SAR equipment, such as closed rescue boats, not open ones like with the Explorer.

For Kudsk the only way to conduct operations in the region safely is through international coordination and cooperation.

“The other factor [which makes operating in the region difficult] is the enormity of the area and the lack of infrastructure. This points in the direction of multi-national cooperation because of the scarce resources in the Arctic; we need to support each other … The main issue [we need to address in the future] is to increase cooperation between state actors in the Arctic.”

What about conflicts of interest? What about military threats, or at least potential military threats?

“Denmark does not see a current military threat that needs to be addressed in the Arctic,” says Capt. Kudsk. “Naturally you can think of situations where you might have some small border conflicts but apart from that we don’t see the potential for military conflict because we believe the nations are there to share interests rather than compete for them.”

Last year Kudsk oversaw the first multi-national SAR exercise, dubbed SAREX 2012, which was conducted by the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental body of eight nations including Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

“We initiated a live search and rescue exercise on the east coast of Greenland. Although it was only half-way up the coast the locality from where we conducted the exercise was 200 km off the north cape of Norway,” Kudsk said. “The distances we’re talking about are huge; if we needed assistance from Halifax in Canada they were 3,700 km away and it was 1500 km to the capital of Greenland.”

A number of scenarios were enacted during SAREX 2012, including an inshore accident similar to that of the Costa Concordia, albeit on a much smaller scale.

“In the event we found the evacuation phase was much more extensive that what you’d normally see – once you rescue someone and get them ashore you would normally say that they were rescued; but not here. They were more or less standing on a rock in the middle of nowhere.”

The exercise was considered to be a success on balance though it made stark the Arctic’s highly complex and dangerous operating environment. But as Captain Kudsk says, “it is one of the last wildernesses in the world.”

If you have any comments or opinions on the changing nature of the Arctic and what it means for security in the region please email haveyoursay@defenceiq.com.

Andrew Elwell Contributor:   Andrew Elwell

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