Polar Disaster Risk Reduction

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health, University College London, UK, and Professor II, University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research.

Inaccessibility and environmental conditions are contextual considerations, but are part of life in the Polar Regions, so must be embraced rather than feared for disaster risk reduction. Disaster risk reduction is a long-term process, involving learning from and supporting the peoples who live in the locales. Starting immediately is always better than waiting until we must ask why nothing was done before it is too late.

The Arctic and Antarctic conjure up stereotypical images of isolation, inhospitality, and danger. The environmental conditions are labelled as being unforgiving, harsh, and unsurvivable. These descriptions are not wrong given that the continual hazards in both regions include freezing temperatures, tumultuous seas, damaging ice, and vicious storms. The Arctic brings the predator of the polar bear while large areas of Antarctica are at high elevation.

This story of a polar hazard is nonetheless incomplete. Many people live and thrive around the Arctic and have done so for millennia, developing rich cultures living off the resources of the land and water. Antarctica has been dedicated to science, with many people overwintering in the scattered research stations and others using the continent for exploration and testing endurance. Many see the hazardous traits as being positive and attractive, making the regions exciting, endearing, and worth living in.

Polar Disasters

Yet death and disaster remain common—as they are around the world. Crises at the high latitudes, as with anywhere, relate stories covering a variety of circumstances and outcomes ranging from an exciting tale to tell back home to horrible tragedy from which those affected never return alive. These happen at the individual and collective levels.

The often-told of the race to be the first known person at the South Pole ended in 1911-1912 with the death of five British explorers who arrived there second and the safe return of the successful Norwegian team. The leader of the latter, Roald Amundsen, died 14 years later with five others in the Arctic’s Barents Sea when his plane crashed during a mission to find other Arctic explorers who had gone missing.

Aircraft crashes feature among more recent disasters in both locations. In November 1979, a tourist flight to Antarctica hit the volcano Mount Erebus killing all 257 people on board. In August 1996, 141 died when an aeroplane crashed into the mountain Operafjellet in the Norwegian High Arctic territory of Svalbard/Spitsbergen.

The sea has witnessed its share of catastrophes. From the Maxim Gorky sinking north of Norway in 1989 to the MS Explorer going down in Antarctic waters in 2007, tourist ships are an ever-present concern when people look for recreation but find hardship. No one died in these two, but the three crew members of the Norwegian yacht – Berserk – were not so lucky when they entered the Antarctic territory illegally and disappeared in 2011 in McMurdo Sound after setting off an emergency beacon.

Hazards which have killed or could kill in the Arctic and Antarctic include avalanches, storms, cold air and oceans, animals, disease, volcanic eruptions, droughts, earthquakes, tsunamis, oil spills, and chemical leaks. Terrorism, violent conflict, social unrest, and supply shortages remain scenarios. The Arctic experiences vegetation fires, landslides, and floods, none of which are necessarily entirely out of the question for the Antarctic (although building fires are far more likely than vegetation fires), especially as it continues to warm due to human-caused climate change. Disaster scenarios which are being considered include a large cruise ship sinking, Arctic settlements such as Murmansk or Iqaluit losing freshwater or electricity, and a large, shallow earthquake shaking Alaska or northern Finland.

Polar Disaster Risk


Since disasters happen in the polar regions, what does this mean for disaster risk reduction there? The principles are similar everywhere, but as always, the practice must be contextualised.

Both Arctic disaster risk reduction and Antarctic disaster risk reduction must contend with low temperatures alongside days, weeks, or months (depending on the exact latitude) of almost complete darkness. Particularly in the winter, people who end up outdoors without adequate clothing and equipment—perhaps due to evacuation or because their vehicle or building was damaged—have limited prospects for survival. Swift and effective rescue can never be guaranteed on land or water due to the ever-changing and often unsafe environmental conditions.

Consequently, before response or rescue would be needed, disaster risk reduction must plan for these situations under the assumption that people could be in difficulty, on their own, for some time. So, rather than preparing for prompt rescue, evacuation, and medical treatment, instead, preparation must be ready for their absence. The disaster risk reduction mantra remains: prevention is better than cure.

This means adjusting for individual circumstances.

Cases in Antarctica include:

• In 1961 when a Russian station’s doctor diagnosed himself with acute appendicitis and—without any possibility for evacuation or incoming support—had to operate on himself to remove his appendix, in an operation called an auto-appendicectomy.

• In 1999 when the South Pole station’s doctor diagnosed herself with breast cancer and, again, in the absence of any hope of evacuation for months, self-treated until she could be flown out.

•  In 2003 when a leopard seal attacked a scientist, pulling her underwater and she could not be revived.

In each instance, where each were very much disasters for the local context and the people involved, protocols were adhered to as much as possible, but improvisation was needed to avoid further adverse consequences.

Such approaches are necessary for collective situations as well. In the Arctic, community centres, schools, offices, and other such buildings would be important for sheltering disaster-affected people; for instance, passengers and crew rescued from a sunk ship or crashed aircraft. Many Arctic communities do not have these options and sheltering in people’s homes would not be easy if the number of rescued people far exceeds the community’s population or where large numbers of houses are damaged.

Disaster risk reduction must account for this situation long before it happens; planning and preparing for shelters, supplies, and evacuations for large numbers of people suddenly in trouble anywhere in the Arctic. The standard approaches of identifying and tackling vulnerabilities over the long-term are needed, typically focusing on people who have the least and who are most marginalised.

Everyone in Antarctica is a visitor, so they already possess a strong baseline of resources to draw on. These resources should always be used for continual vulnerability reduction, damage mitigation, readiness, and emergency planning and preparedness so that difficult situations do not become disasters, among the many other actions of disaster risk reduction. The Arctic, with its long-established peoples and settlements, also displays long-established inequities, oppression, and injustices which feed into vulnerabilities causing disasters. Disaster risk reduction means considering how people live, where they live, the resources they can obtain, the choices they are permitted, and the opportunities they have to improve their situation from ever-present vulnerabilities. Act for Polar Peoples

The Polar Regions and Polar peoples are not alone. Plenty of analogies exist which could and should inform the implementation of polar disaster risk reduction. Mountain settlements experience some similarities in terms of cold and isolated traits, with settlements often impassable for days or weeks. Locations such as the Balkans and Afghanistan have gone through frigid winters with large conflict-affected populations trying to survive despite limited supplies, inadequate shelters, and limited opportunities for external aid. The Arctic has known similar struggles, including northern Finland, Norway (including Svalbard), and Russia during World War II.

In these circumstances, the key would have been to avoid the conflict. During peacetime, the key to disaster risk reduction is for people to have knowledge, resources, choices, and opportunities for understanding disasters, disaster potential, vulnerabilities, and reducing vulnerabilities. Inaccessibility and environmental conditions are contextual considerations but are part of life in the polar regions, so they must be embraced rather than feared for disaster risk reduction. Disaster risk reduction is a long-term process, involving learning from and supporting the peoples who live in the locales. Starting right away is always better than waiting until we must ask why nothing was done before it is too late.                

You can share this post!

Related Articles

There is No natural Disasters

Kevin Blanchard, a Fellow at the Royal Geographical Society (FRGS), is an M.Sc in Environment, Politics & Globalis ...

Dr. Mukesh Kapila

Dr. Mukesh Kapila is Professor of Global Health & Humanitarian Af ...

Paradox on Vulnerability and Risk Assessment for Climate Change and Natural Hazards

Dr Bapon (SHM) Fakhruddin is Technical Director - DRR and Climate Resilience. He is aninternational disaster ris ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to Magazine

Submit your Article

Know Disasters, a bi-monthly magazine, aims to promote knowledge transfer and dissemination of information on all aspects of disaster risk management by demystifying and simplifying the disaster risk reduction (DRR) measures to all stakeholders, including the common man.

© 2022 | All Right Reserved | Website Design by Innovative Web

Submit your Article

Subscribe Now