Should We Plan for Polar Humanitarianism?

By Polar Research and Policy Initiative
Dogs to the rescue in a whiteout on Svalbard? By Ilan Kelman

Prof Ilan Kelman


The polar regions are often represented as being isolated, dangerous, and replete with disasters and misery, particularly due to the harsh and unforgiving environment. This storyline is realistic, but is also countered by those who live there enjoying and seeking to retain the climate alongside those highlighting the positive outcomes from the characteristics.

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Yet disasters do happen in the Arctic and Antarctic, so polar humanitarianism must be considered. A Barents Sea air crash during a search-and-rescue mission killed Roald Amundsen and five others in June 1928, while November 1979 witnessed the tragedy of 257 people perishing when sightseeing flight Air New Zealand Flight TE901 crashed into Mount Erebus. Tourist boats have sunk in both regions, such as the Maxim Gorky in 1989 north of Norway and the MS Explorer in 2007 in Antarctic waters, neither incident causing serious casualties.

All these situations connected many countries due to where the craft were registered, who was on board, the nearest rescuers and the nearest land. Other events with multi-national responses include the Norwegian yacht Berserk disappearing in McMurdo Sound in 2011 and the fatal avalanches on Svalbard of 19 December 2015 and 19 May 2019. Polar disaster scenarios being researched are a cruise ship with thousands on board sinking in northern or southern waters; settlements such as Longyearbyen or Iqaluit losing the power or freshwater supply while the airport is out-of-action, perhaps due to weather; and a major tsunami or wildfire, both of which have affected Kalaallit Nunaat (Greenland) in recent years, forcing many Arctic towns to evacuate at short notice.

Both Arctic humanitarianism and Antarctic humanitarianism display similar cold-weather challenges. Anyone caught outdoors without adequate equipment has limited survival prospects, especially in the winter. Weather at any time of the year can preclude prompt rescue efforts while the sea’s power and the ever-drifting ice mean that non-land-based rescues need to pursue a drifting target. Whether in a lifeboat or in a tent, cold and storms mean that adequate shelter is far more important to survival than in locations where post-disaster lack of freshwater is often the most imminent threat.

In the Arctic, collective buildings such as schools and community centres are sometimes a sheltering possibility, as is the potential to follow humanitarian guidelines of ensuring one warm room per house. Nevertheless, many remote communities around the Arctic could not even provide these options. They have perhaps dozens or hundreds or residents, leaving few supplies, limited collective buildings, often dilapidated infrastructure, and so difficult prospects for humanitarianism if large numbers of disaster-affected people arrive or if large numbers of buildings become unusable due to a disaster.

In the Antarctic, settlements do not really exist. Even if hundreds of uninjured, stranded cruise or airline passengers were able to set up makeshift shelter on an ice shelf or more solid land, how long would the warmth, food, and fuel to melt ice for water last until full evacuation were feasible?

Humanitarian guidelines and standards recognise the need for cold-weather approaches, such as a key shelter indicator being “Minimum 3.5 square metres of living space per person…4.5–5.5 square metres of living space per person in cold climates”. Guidance notes further discuss ceiling height, thermal capacity, insulation, air flow, and bedding for wintry conditions. Experience in chilly humanitarian situations include the wars marking Yugoslavia’s breakup, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, Afghanistan over the decades, and Syrians fleeing the war since 2011 often to nearby mountainous locations.

How this practice would translate into large-scale polar humanitarianism has yet to be seen, including for international cooperation such as disaster diplomacy. Arctic and Antarctic humanitarianism have a long way to go regarding our understanding of possible disasters, actual conditions, the expected needs of affected people, and the presumed responses.

It is always better to plan, prepare, and be ready before humanitarian mechanisms must be implemented. For the Arctic and Antarctic, the time to start is now.


Prof Ilan Kelman is a Professor in Risk, Resilience and Global Health at UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and UCL Institute for Global Health, UK, and a researcher at the 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. He focuses mainly on polar regions and island communities.
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