Just before dawn and in the cold of approaching winter, the crew of Polarcus Asima prepare for their last day after a six-week rotation of Arctic exploration.
A tiny speck in the vast wilderness off Greenland, the vessel navigates a treacherous Iceberg Alley, where enormous towers of blue ice speckle the steel grey waters. As the Asima carves a path through the ocean, up to ten streamers trail behind, capturing groundbreaking 3D images of what lies beneath. It’s yet another day in Arctic paradise for Party Manager Glenn ‘Cass’ Cassim and his crew, and the closing chapter on Polarcus’ first Arctic seismic survey.
“Every person has a slightly different perception of the Arctic, but the scenery at times has been nothing short of breathtaking,” recalls Cass. “We have experienced eerie scenes in the fog when icebergs would appear like ghosts from a forgotten world. Then there were days of almost glassy seas and brilliant sunshine, where the white and blue ice contrasted with a deep blue and sometimes cloudless sky.”
This is a corner of the world where the Arctic atmosphere dazzles, with icebergs appearing to be suspended in mid-air. And, aside from the creaking and thumping of bergs, there is the deafening sound of no noise at all.
Cass adds: “The sunsets and sunrises produced the deepest oranges and purple hues; when laced with the dramatic black and grey clouds, this creates a scene of timeless tranquility mixed with a strange menace.”
Pods of narwhals, midnight sunsets and Arctic special effects were all in a day’s work for the crew. But natural beauty and wonder aside, why brave the extreme hazards and challenging conditions of Greenland’s frozen coast? It’s all part of Polarcus’ master plan and vision – as boldly declared in 2008 – to pioneer surveys in environmentally sensitive areas while causing minimal impact on the environment. And the Arctic is the ultimate goal.
The US Geological Survey estimates that the Arctic may be home to 30% of the planet’s undiscovered natural gas reserves and 13% of its undiscovered oil – and up to 160 Bboe could lie undiscovered beneath the Arctic. The figures speak for themselves, explaining why the world’s biggest oil firms are clamoring for a piece of the Arctic action.
Polarcus is well positioned to secure a dominant market share in the Arctic. It has the industry’s first true Arctic standard 3D seismic vessels, with design features such as a double hull, ICE-1A/ICE-1A* class notation, DP2 dynamic positioning, and advanced ballast water treatment. These were put to the test this summer, when Polarcus deployed three ICE-1A class vessels – the Amani, Samur and – during a 12-week 3D seismic survey in Baffin Bay, about 400 miles north of the Arctic Circle and just off the coast of Greenland.
“Conducting the survey with minimal impact to the environment and local communities was paramount in surveying such a frontier area complicated by icebergs and very challenging remote logistics. The project was a success, with no recordable EHSQ incidents onboard, very low technical down time and a high quality data set delivered to our client,” explains Glenn Werth, Vessel Manager Polarcus Amani.
At the End of the World
From Russia to the Congo, Polarcus has a reputation for innovation and environmental responsibility, but nowhere has tested this pioneering company to the limit quite like the Arctic. The offshore survey had to be carried out in the short summer (August to October) while there is sufficient open water for towed-streamer deployment. Past this date and the sunlight hours reduce to zero, temperatures plummet to -12° C, the sea freezes over, and even humpback whales migrate to warmer waters.
Cass explains: “We are in an environment where the temperature, even in summer, is not too far above freezing and there is a high wind-chill factor. Both people and machinery have to be well prepared to work in such an environment. We are also working in very isolated conditions, well away from the support services, resources and supplies that are normal in, for instance, central Europe.”
To avoid depleting the small Inuit community of Upernavik where Polarcus operated from, fresh provisions were transported via charter plane from Iceland, dry-stores came by container from Denmark, and an offshore tanker supplied fuel for the vessels.
And then there were the specific challenges of completing a seismic survey safely and successfully. Cass says: “The Asima is towing a spread of equipment one kilometer wide and more than six kilometers long in an environment where we are surrounded by icebergs, bergy-bits and ice-growlers. This, combined with bad visibility due to fog and snowstorms, as well as the onset of longer nights towards the end of the project, meant that we had to take some special precautions to keep both equipment and crew safe.”
Polarcus has the only ICE-1A class fleet in the world. Its vessels can passage in first-year ice of up to a meter thickness without the assistance of icebreakers; they are ice-reinforced with thicker ribs and skin plates, have de-icing and ice-preventing systems at critical tanks and pipelines and their propellers, gears and thrusters can withstand operations in ice. In short, they are Arctic-ready.
“Due to the high reliability of the equipment, periods outside were kept to a minimum,” adds Cass. “The closing-in of daylight as the project progressed was more a hindrance to the watchkeepers on the bridges of all vessels, as it made it more difficult to search out ice-particles in the water. However, this was greatly helped by a special radar designed for detecting ice.
Breaking the Ice
This year, the amount of solid summer polar ice was at the third lowest level on record. The result? The Arctic becomes more accessible, with stretches of sea that are normally blocked now open to vessels such as the Asima. However, far from plain sailing, the waters are still scattered with potential hazards.
Between 10,000 and 15,000 icebergs are calved each year, primarily from 20 major glaciers along Greenland’s west coast. Operating just off this coast, the Polarcus vessels would bump through blocks of ice the size of washing machines. “Floating bergs with millions of liters of frozen water are the starting point after they break off from a glacier. These solid frozen blocks slowly break down due to temperature, wavemotion, natural fracturing and interaction with the sea-bed, breaking down into smaller bergs, bergy-bits and eventually into small ice ‘growlers’ of only one or two cubic meters,” explains Cass.
“All these ice particles can damage both the vessel and the equipment. The main challenge was to acquire the data necessary in the survey area without letting the vessel or equipment come into contact with these particles. We are towing six-km-long streamers, but they don’t necessarily follow the course of the vessel. It takes a lot of time and attention to keep operations running smoothly.”
Modern and traditional methods coexist to steer the three Polarcus vessels and their support fleet through safe waters – from satellite technology to the expert pair of eyes of an ice pilot. Cass says: “Essentially, we used visual lookouts and electronic radar, as well as satellite images to ascertain the position and drift of the ice, in addition to monitoring currents, weather and knowing the exact positions of all of the towed equipment. From this information, safe traverse paths and escape routes were formulated collectively by the ice-coordinators, bridge and navigation teams.”
Leave Only Footprints
Polarcus launched 2012 with a goal to lead by example and ‘be the most environmentally responsible towed marine seismic service provider’ – and its commitment really shows through when operating in fragile areas such as the Arctic. “We take every precaution to prevent or minimize our environmental footprint,” says Peter Zickerman, Executive Vice President, Polarcus. “The Asima’s double hull and its advanced bilge water cleaning system and ballast water treatment system reduce emissions to water down to a minimum. The vessel, like the other vessels in our fleet, runs on marine gas oil (MGO) with low sulfur content and has high specification exhaust catalysts. The vessel’s X-BOW hull line design is another of its many green features, in that it reduces fuel consumption and therefore emissions to air.”
The X-BOW also provides a safe, comfortable workplace. “The X-BOW’s gliding movements allow us to relax and sleep uninterruptedly – a definite benefit for the people on board,” says Cass.
There is life at the ice edge, with herds of muskoxen and walruses, pods of whales and narwhal, and much more. And Polarcus’ primary goal is to conduct its surveying operations while protecting these very mammals.
Marine Mammal Observers (MMO) on each vessel stake a 24-hour lookout for all wildlife within visual distance of the vessel (see GEO ExPro, Vol. 9, No. 5) They monitor exclusion zones and record wildlife observations, map sightings and log identification and behavior information. Source ‘soft-start’ techniques warn marine mammals and polar bears of pending seismic operations and allow time for those animals to leave the area.
“Additionally, Passive Acoustic Monitoring (PAM) operators kept a constant vigil, listening and logging any acoustic noise that might be generated by cetaceans, using specially designed in-water listening equipment. This was especially useful in the hours of darkness,” says Cass.
Land of Promise
Polarcus is simply translated as ‘arc to the polar region’, and Asima is derived from an Arabic female name meaning ‘protector’. So, how apt for the Polarcus Asima to forge the path for seismic exploration in the Arctic while safeguarding this environmentally sensitive area.
The initial success of the Arctic projects has proved that there are no barriers of entry to this region. And, by performing its work cleaner and greener than the competition, Polarcus continues to set new standards for a traditionally ‘black’ industry. The data collected from the Amani, Samur and Asima are all that’s been taken from this fragile corner of the world – that and some lasting memories of the Arctic’s dazzling beauty.
Cass concludes: “I am in awe of what I have seen. My hope is that whatever happens here in the years to come, the beauty and mystique of the place will always remain. For all of us on Asima, it will be one of those trips we’ll never forget.”
To learn more about exploration for hydrocarbons in the Arctic and see more stunning photographs of the region, download the GEO ExPro iPad edition on the Arctic, available free from the Appstore.