Travelling along a rugged, frozen coast north of the Arctic Circle this April, you might have come across a team of researchers attempting to answer a key question: How long can a person survive in the Arctic in a lifeboat or life raft?
I was part of that mission. As a Human Factors Analyst at ABS, I jumped at the opportunity to join the University of Stavanger, the Norwegian Coast Guard, Company GMC and other academic and industry participants in a search and rescue research exercise in the frigid waters of Svalbard, an archipelago between mainland Norway and the North Pole.
Many people might have balked at the prospect of heading into polar waters to study lifesaving appliances—but I couldn’t have been more excited to be a part of the project, given my background. In 2012, I began my Masters working with the Marine Safety group at the National Research Council (NRC) Canada. In the Marine Safety group, we worked together to look specifically at the Escape, Evacuation and Rescue aspect of the maritime industry. My two years there were mostly spent studying lifeboats to see how they function in harsh environments from a human factors and engineering perspective—which was nearly identical to what we were going to research in Svalbard.
Central to the purpose of our research was the IMO’s International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters, also known as the Polar Code. The Polar Code enters into force in 2017, bringing with it a broad spectrum of binding regulations. Of particular interest to us was Chapter 8 of the Polar Code, which provides requirements for lifesaving appliances and arrangements on vessels providing for escape, evacuation and survival.
One of the requirements in the Polar Code states that vessels must include “adequate” thermal protection for all persons on board—another requirement states that the time adopted for survival support equipment and systems “shall never be less than 5 days.” But what constitutes “adequate” thermal protection? And even with appropriate support equipment and systems, are people on board vessels traveling in Arctic waters truly equipped to survive at least five days? The goal of our research was to study and attempt to interpret these requirements and determine the industry’s state of readiness to comply with them.
Our research was broken into three phases. The first phase challenged participants to survive for 24 hours in a lifeboat or life raft. In this phase, participants were randomly assigned to wear different levels of thermal protection and to remain in a lifeboat or life raft. Participants were required to leave the lifeboat or life raft if their protective equipment was deemed ineffective, determined by criteria such as shivering, the inability to perform a simple mechanical task, or participants’ hands and feet becoming numb.
Weather conditions were considered perfect for the test, with nearly no wind or waves—however, average air temperature was a frigid -13ºC (8.6ºF) and water temperature averaged -1ºC (30.2ºF). Outcomes of the research varied widely: participants wearing thermal life jackets were among the first to leave the study, and the last to leave were those wearing fully-insulated immersion suits. Overall, participants wearing insulated immersion suits lasted the longest time—but only three people were actually able to stay 24 hours in the lifeboat, and no participants were able to last 24 hours in the life raft. As a participant in the study, I can personally say how challenging it would be to survive for any prolonged period of time in these harsh conditions. Preliminary conclusions of our research suggest that insulated immersion suits should be strongly considered for vessels operating in Arctic environments, as they provided the best thermal protection in Arctic conditions.
Preliminary findings from the Svalbard research suggest that it may be difficult to meet Polar Code requirements for surviving at least five days in polar waters. However, research in the Arctic is far from over. Results from the Svalbard study indicate that further research is needed in areas such as the adequacy of thermal protection after exposure to water, and the impact of more harsh environmental conditions (wind, waves, snow, etc.), just to name a few. In the meantime, a full report on our research exercise will be available to the public in the fall of 2016, which will provide detailed findings and hopefully help industry interpret Polar Code requirements for escape, evacuation and survival.
Katie Aylward is a Human Factors Analyst at ABS. She has worked on human factors related research in the maritime industry for over four years, focusing primarily on human survival and operations in harsh environments.