British scientists have been set what could be one of the hardest puzzles ever set – to find a way of balancing a growing need for oil and gas and a desire for exotic holidays against protecting the Arctic and its indigenous people.

They don’t expect an easy answer.

The EU has backed a diverse group of experts, including those at the University of Portsmouth, in the hope they can help find solutions that balance social, technological, environmental and security concerns in the Arctic’s volatile and precious habitat.

The Portsmouth researchers are working with world experts in ice, shipping, the polar environment and satellite technology, as well as coastguards from many northern hemisphere countries.

They have five years to outline what decisions need to be made to safeguard one of the planet’s last great wildernesses.

One of those leading the research at the University of Portsmouth is Professor Dylan Jones, an expert in logistics and the science of decisions.

He said: “There aren’t many new frontiers left on the planet, but the Arctic is one of them. We’re hoping to work out how to keep the Arctic safe and prevent disasters, and what technology do we need to invest in to do that.”

There aren’t many new frontiers left on the planet, but the Arctic is one of them. We’re hoping to work out how to keep the Arctic safe and prevent disasters, and what technology do we need to invest in to do that.

Professor Dylan Jones, Professor of Operational Research

The EU funding comes in response to the polar ice melting, which has meant there’s more room for shipping and oil and gas exploration which, in turn, poses new risks to people and the natural environment.

Such risks include a cruise ship floundering, an oil spill, or a nuclear leak from a nuclear powered icebreaker ship or submarine in the region.

All these problems are compounded by huge distances and an inhospitable climate.

In addition, with eight countries governing the Arctic under a ‘polar code’ – Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Canada, USA, Russia and Finland – the region is also politically complicated.

Professor Jones said: “We all want energy, but there is not an unlimited amount of oil on the planet and some people might feel differently if they knew the next step might be drilling for oil closer to the North Pole.”

We all want energy, but there is not an unlimited amount of oil on the planet and some people might feel differently if they knew the next step might be drilling for oil closer to the North Pole.

Professor Dylan Jones, Professor of Operational Research

As well as shipping companies taking advantage of the ice melt giving their ships more space to sail, there has been a rise in tourism with cruise ships full of those with the money and appetite to explore an exotic new place, potentially posing serious problems for people’s safety if anything goes wrong.

Professor Jones said: “People want to see the Arctic and why shouldn’t they, but the Arctic is far from anywhere, the distances are vast, and so part of this study is to work out how to protect people if and when things go wrong.”

The Portsmouth team includes world leader in cold weather physiology and technology Professor Mike Tipton, expert in cold Dr Joe Costello, disaster management expert Professor Ashraf Labib, and satellite applications expert Professor Djamila Ouelhadj.

People want to see the Arctic and why shouldn’t they, but the Arctic is far from anywhere, the distances are vast, and so part of this study is to work out how to protect people if and when things go wrong.

Professor Dylan Jones, Professor of Operational Research

Together, they are mapping and forecasting potential worst case scenarios, including a cruise ship sinking in Arctic waters, to environmental damage caused by an oil spill or a radiological leak, to assess what is needed to protect people and safeguard the future of the Arctic.

The team will work with 22 partners, including coastguards, maritime, government and NGO agencies from EU nations and Russia, Finland, Norway, the US and Canada, Antarctic experts from New Zealand, an Italian satellite company, and universities in Ireland, Finland and Canada.

The project is being led by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre of Northern Norway.

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