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Sea Routes and Marine Transport

Mariners have made use of the ice-free waters on the periphery of the Arctic Ocean for hundreds of years, and the flow of marine traffic has risen throughout the 20th century. Studies now suggest that, due to retreating sea ice cover, the ocean could be ice-free for a short period as early as summer 2015. Regardless of when this may happen, maritime activity in the Arctic is poised to reach global prominence in the not-distant future.

Approximately 6,000 individual vessels currently operate in Arctic waters. This includes tankers, bulk carriers, offshore supply vessels, passenger ships, tug/barge combinations, fishing vessels (about 1600), ferries, research vessels, and government and commercial icebreakers. The three primary demands for shipping services are: moving natural resources out of the region, supplying goods to communities, and tourism. The highest concentrations of marine activity occur along coastal northwest Russia, and in the ice-free waters off Norway, Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska. Ship-based scientific exploration and research is on the rise, as is cruise ship traffic, particularly around Greenland.

Maritime transport utilizes some 17 ports and harbors. Only a few of these handle high volumes of raw materials for shipping to production and consumption centers. A number of smaller ports support passenger services and fishing. Major ports and harbors include:

  • Russia - Murmansk, Arkhangelsk, Labytnangi/Salekhard, Dudinka, Igarka, Dikson, Tiksi, and Pevek

  • Canada - Churchill (Manitoba), Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk (Northwest Territories),
    Nanisivik (Nunavut)

  • Norway - Longyearbyen, Kirkenes, and Vardø

  • United States (Alaska) – Barrow and Valdez

Two sea routes are becoming increasingly important. The first is the Northern Sea Route, a water course north of Eurasia that stretches from Novaya Zemlya (Russia) in the west to the Bering Strait in the east. Since 1978–79, Russian government ice-breaking ships have maintained year-round navigation of much of the route, which opened to international marine traffic in 1991. The second emerging route is the Northwest Passage, which traverses the northern coastal waters of North America, winding through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago to the Bering Strait. A limited number of ships have navigated the entire passage since 2000.

In late August 2008, for the first time in 125,000 years, both the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route were open and navigable simultaneously. The landmark event heightened the plausibility of “short-cut” routes that would greatly reduce the distance and travel time, during summer, for shipping goods between Pacific and Atlantic coasts in Europe and North America. Nonetheless, winter sea ice cover is projected to remain indefinitely, and changing ice conditions will continue to pose considerable challenges for marine operations.

The Northern Sea Route is already fully open up to eight weeks a year, with ships transporting about a 1.5 million tons of goods. As this route runs through fairly open waters and summertime ice conditions can be relatively stable, the chances are good that it will see even heavier traffic in the coming years. In contrast, the Northwest Passage snakes through a labyrinth of Canadian islands, where shifting ice conditions can imperil ship traffic. Major investments in escort vessels and staging ports will be required to make the route a viable thoroughfare, which will likely take decades.

Approximately 6,000 individual vessels currently operate in Arctic waters. This includes tankers, bulk carriers, offshore supply vessels, passenger ships, tug/barge combinations, fishing vessels (about 1600), ferries, and research vessels.

Another possible, even shorter trans-Arctic sea route has been proposed: a more or less straight course that would utilize icebreakers to plow through frozen sections of the Arctic Ocean, where ice thickness averages about 2.5 meters. Presumably, this would require a fleet of ice-breakers. Currently only a small number of such ships are in service. Russia operates seven civilian nuclear-powered icebreakers and plans to build another by 2015. 

While climate change appears to be driving the polar North toward expanded maritime activity, the overall shortage of major ports and other critical infrastructure will be significant limitations. Detailed navigational maps, meteorological and oceanographic data, and radio and satellite communications are generally lacking (except for areas along coastal Norway and northwest Russia). These deficits, combined with the remote and harsh quality of the environment make emergency response to marine accidents much more difficult than in many other regions. As the Arctic Council’s 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment notes, the expansion of infrastructure must include enhancing safety at sea and protecting the ocean environment. Meeting these considerable challenges will require close cooperation between Arctic states, industry, and other public and private groups. (See also International Cooperation section.)