Thomas Sharkey

Associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at Rensselaer


By Regina Stracqualursi

If you’ve ever been on a cruise, you know how unsettling it feels to look out in every direction and see nothing but ocean. This feeling stems from our instinct to survive and a threat to that survival when we don’t see an opportunity to flee from a dangerous situation. Despite this risk, the cruise industry generates billions of dollars in revenue each year. Part of what makes people comfortable traveling on cruises is the existence of safety requirements and emergency procedures. However, when traveling to areas of the world that have been minimally explored, an emergency situation can quickly become disastrous due to the lack of proper planning and resources.

The Arctic waters have recently experienced longer ice-free seasons than ever before, resulting in an increase in tourism and industrial activity in a once isolated area. Cruise ships have traveled further and further north and cargo ship volume on the Northern Sea Route continuously increases. Such excursions can take place up to 1,000 miles away from communities that have permanent emergency response infrastructure and resources, like Anchorage or the Aleutian Islands. For this reason, researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are leading a project funded by the National Science Foundation to develop models for emergency response in the Arctic.

“An emergency in the Arctic could become catastrophic if not properly planned for simply due to the remoteness of the region,” said Thomas Sharkey, associate professor of industrial and systems engineering at Rensselaer and principal investigator of the project. “Many of the communities in the Arctic are small compared to the size of potential disasters.”

The research seeks to address the growing need for Arctic emergency response models by developing plans for structures and facilities that will aid in emergency response efforts while also providing benefits to Arctic communities, where the infrastructure will be built and maintained.

“We’re hoping to identify the types of benefits that the infrastructure can provide to these communities so they view it as a positive addition as opposed to a burden,” said Sharkey. To identify those benefits, social scientists will examine the societal impact of the infrastructure that is proposed as a result of this research.

In addition to Sharkey, the grant team includes Martha Grabowski, a senior research scientist, and William Wallace, a professor, from the Rensselaer Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. They are joined by Marie Lowe, associate professor of anthropology and public policy at the University of Alaska, and Thomas Birkland, professor of public policy at North Carolina State University.

“Large-scale challenges, such as those posed by Arctic emergency response, require the integration of social science, engineering, system theories, information, and decision support disciplines to address the many facets of this problem and to support the needs of impacted communities,” said Grabowski. “Our research will meld engineering, social science, and systems theories and technologies to develop approaches and proposed solutions to the logistical and emergency response challenges in the vast and challenging setting that is the Arctic.”