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Navigating the future of Arctic shipping

What an increase in Arctic shipping means for the region

The Arctic marine environment is undergoing extraordinary environmental and developmental changes. Access to the Arctic Ocean is changing quickly as sea ice extent reduces and thins – enabling longer seasons of ship navigation and new access to previously difficult to reach regions. At the same time, the Arctic is home to significant natural resources, high commodity prices and a growing worldwide demand. The promise of shorter shipping routes and growing access and demand for natural resources is piquing the interest of nations and industries around the globe.

Ship traffic in the Arctic has been increasing modestly for the last 20 years. With that comes implications for Arctic inhabitants, who could become burdened by marine disruption, increased pollution and more. This underscores the need for fostering cooperation between the Arctic States, Indigenous Permanent Participants and stakeholders in the shipping industry.

While the implications of a more heavily trafficked Arctic Ocean are not yet fully understood, the first step is to fill a critical knowledge gap in shipping trends in the Arctic.

Monitoring Arctic shipping trends

The Arctic Council’s Working Group on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) monitors Arctic ship traffic trends and issues Arctic Shipping Status Reports using its established Arctic Ship Traffic Data (ASTD) System. Its reports define Arctic waters using the International Maritime Organization’s International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code).
PAME’s first Arctic Shipping Status Report showed that between 2013 and 2019, the number of ships entering the Arctic grew by 25 percent, from 1,298 ships to 1,628 ships. The total distance sailed by those ships in the Arctic grew by 75 percent from 6.51 million nautical miles in 2013 to 9.5 million nautical miles in 2019.

The majority of ships (41 percent) entering the Arctic are commercial fishing vessels. Other types of ships that commonly navigate in the region include bulk carriers, icebreakers, and research vessels. Growing Arctic marine tourism also has its share – 73 cruise ships sailed in Arctic waters in 2019.

Fuels used by ships in the Arctic

PAME’s second Arctic Shipping Status Report provides information on fuels used by ships in the Arctic in 2019 with a focus on heavy fuel oils (HFO). HFO is extremely viscous and persists in cold Arctic water for weeks or longer if released, increasing potential to cause damage to marine ecosystems and coastlines. In ice-covered waters, an HFO spill could result in oil becoming trapped in and under the ice. When burned as fuel by ships, HFO has some of the highest concentrations of hazardous emissions among marine fuels. PAME’s second Arctic Shipping Status Report shows that around 10 percent of ships in Arctic waters burned HFO as fuel in 2019.

While the number of unique ships in Arctic waters in 2016 is nearly identical to the number of unique ships in those waters in 2019, fuel consumption grew by 82 percent. In 2016, there were no liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers in Arctic waters as compared to 29 LNG tankers in 2019. These 29 LNG tankers consumed over 260,000 tons of fuel, making up the greatest portion of total fuels consumed by ships in the Arctic in 2019.

I think that safety at sea translates to our people still being able to hunt and fish and remain on the landscape. Dr. Liza Mack

Shipping’s impact on Arctic coastal communities

Arctic coastal communities that are used to largely un-trafficked waters are likely to experience major changes as shipping in the Arctic increases. As shipping increases, it may interfere with communities’ subsistence harvesting of fish and marine mammals, foul their coastlines if they spill fuel or other toxic substances or impose a heavy burden upon their limited search and rescue and response capabilities in the event of an accident.

One such community is the town of Adak, located in the Aleutian Islands that connects westward from the Alaska Peninsula towards the Kamchatka Peninsula in Russia. If the Northern Sea Route becomes traversable for more than six months a year, the shorter route to Europe could become profitable for routes to Japan, Korea and China. Adak – a community of 330 people – could soon find itself in the crosshairs of Arctic shipping, which will connect vessels to the Great Circle Route – a route that 7,000 vessels could soon use to bring goods to Europe.

For the Unangan (Aleut people) and other Indigenous peoples across the Arctic coastline that rely on subsistence hunting, safe and sustainable shipping is critical. “Healthy oceans and a clean environment equal healthy people and for us to continue our subsistence lifestyles that is something that we are very much cognizant of,” says Dr. Liza Mack, Executive Director of the Aleut International Association. “The Aleut region is the doorway to get to the Arctic. In order to get to the Northern Sea Route and through to the Northwest Passage, you come through our region. Therefore, I think that safety at sea translates to our people still being able to hunt and fish and remain on the landscape.”

With the potential to have significant implications for Arctic inhabitants and the region as a whole, cooperation and coordination between all stakeholders is needed to ensure this emerging sector of shipping is developed in a sustainable way.

Fostering cooperation

In September 2020, the Arctic Council launched a new marine cooperation initiative: The Senior Arctic Officials’ Marine Mechanism (SMM). The virtual series brought together marine experts from across the Arctic Council network for discussions on how to improve the coordination of marine issues, including Arctic shipping.

Magnús Jóhannesson, Special Adviser for Arctic Affairs to the Icelandic Chairmanship of the Arctic Council, moderated the Arctic shipping session and commented, “Sustainable development in any sector will not be fruitful unless we involve the sector itself, so if the Arctic Council wants to promote sustainable Arctic shipping it is important to collaborate with the shipping sector operating in the Arctic.”

One way in which the Council collaborates with the shipping sector is through its cooperation with the International Maritime Organization (IMO). To raise awareness of Arctic shipping provisions amongst all those involved in or potentially affected by Arctic marine operations, PAME established the Arctic Shipping Best Practice Information Forum in 2017. The Forum meets on a yearly basis, and is open to Arctic States, Indigenous Permanent Participants, Arctic Council Observers and any widely recognized professional organization dedicated to improving safe and environmentally sound marine operations in the Arctic.

Relative to other parts of the globe, Arctic shipping is still in an early stage, providing an opportunity for the Council in partnership with marine stakeholders to guide its development in a sustainable way. Continuing to monitor Arctic shipping trends and its impacts on the Arctic marine environment and communities, combined with continued cooperation among the Arctic States, Indigenous Permanent Participants and shipping stakeholders will shape the future of Arctic shipping.

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