The True North, Strong and Ice-Free – A GLOBE-Net Special Report

Ice breaker in North

GLOBE-Net, February 25, 2015 – It’s not a matter of whether ice-free navigation of the Arctic Ocean will be possible. The issue is how soon this will happen and to what degree.

Opinions vary as to how soon ice-free navigation may be possible, but recent studies by the U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) reveal that summer sea ice levels could potentially fall to zero before the end of this century, which would mean that the Arctic Ocean would be completely open, something unprecedented in living memory.

The impacts of an ‘open waters’ Arctic have ramifications that touch on a variety of issues – economic competitiveness, Arctic resource development, environmental impacts, sovereignty rights, national security, and impacts on northern communities and Indigenous cultures.

Overwhelming economic benefits

One of the more compelling shipping related imperatives is the economic factors associated with shorter sea routes between Europe and Asia. Despite the harsh operating conditions and higher risk factors, the economic benefits of the Arctic sea routes for both foreign and Canadian shippers  are overwhelming.

There are two already well established shipping routes along the northern coast, the most developed being Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR), which has received over 500 successful applicants, up from zero only five years ago. (See Arctic Shipping Routes Map)

Northwet Passgage

Two shipping routes along the northern coast include Russia’s Northern Sea Route (Red) and Canada’s Northwest Passage (Green).

The transit distance for a general cargo ship from Yokohama to Hamburg via the Northern Sea Route along Russia’s Arctic border not only is shorter than the alternative route through the Suez Canal, there are considerable savings in time (reduced from 34 to 23 days) and in fuel costs, roughly estimated at about US$200,000.

A ship sailing via the Northwest Passage (NWP) in U.S. and Canadian waters can shave 1,000 nautical miles off a voyage that would transit the Panama Canal, saving not only time and fuel costs, but also able to carry larger cargos free of Panamax depth restrictions, even after the Canal expansion has occurred.

In 2013 the 225 meter long, 75,000 deadweight-ton Nordic Orion sailed from Vancouver to the Finnish port of Pori via the Northwest Passage with a full load of coking coal from Teck Resources to Ruukki Metals, a Finnish steel producer.  Despite the hazardous conditions, this Panamax designed ship was able to carry 15,000 more tons of cargo than would have been possible via the Panama Canal.

Shorter northern sea routes require less fuel, which translates into lower CO2 emissions from ships carrying heavier loads operating at slower more efficient speeds due to harsh Arctic water conditions.

Environmental risks will rise

Unfortunately, one downside issue is that ships moving a slower speeds tend to produce more particulate matter – black carbon – which when it settles on whatever ice is left ice tends to increase solar heat absorption, accelerating ice and snow melt.

A great deal of research is underway to address this problem and mandatory requirements for the use of more expensive lower carbon intensive fuels for Arctic water conditions may significantly reduce black carbon and other emissions. But the wheels of change work slowly in the north.

There are other environmental challenges looming on the Arctic horizon, not just from increased shipping, but also from planned exploration and development of oil and gas resources. The risks of major oil spills are very real and to date the technologies and resources for cleanup and recovery, particularly in the extreme harsh operating conditions in frigid ice-choked waters are far from adequate.

In a new book Future Arctic: Field Notes from a World on the Edge  journalist Ed Struzik warns of the pending upheaval in the Arctic and what should be done about it. He writes “If there was a blowout in the Arctic and the oil got under the ice, powerful currents could carry the oil a long way into areas where whales, walrus, polar bears, sea birds, and fish thrive, which would be catastrophic to the Arctic’s subsistence economy

“I think there should be a moratorium on offshore oil and gas development until the biological hotspots are mapped and protected, he said in a recent interview. “I also think that offshore oil and gas development should not proceed until engineers find a way of effectively separating oil from ice.”

National Security implications

There are even broader issues of concern for Canada’s presence in the waters that ring our northern frontier. A Special Study on the National Security and Defence Policies of Canada Standing Senate Committee on National Security and Defence published in March 2011 highlighted the bonanza of oil, natural gas, minerals, fish and other marine life that were opening up to a resource-hungry world as a consequence of the Arctic Ocean’s shrinking  ice sheet.

It noted that access to resources and control of transportation routes – long considered matters of national security and points of contention among nations – were a leading cause of conflict and the Arctic was no exception. The report cited the Canada–US dispute over the Northwest Passage as a key case in point.

“Canada asserts that the Passage’s waters are internal, fully subject to our laws and regulations. The United States and many other countries say the Northwest Passage is an international strait, meaning that all nations have the right of so-called “innocent passage,” said the report.


Canada asserts that the Passage’s waters are internal, fully subject to our laws and regulations. The United States and many other countries say the Northwest Passage is an international strait, meaning that all nations have the right of so-called “innocent passage

While this is an issue over which our two nations have agreed to disagree, the broader international picture relates to what Arctic Ocean coastal states stand to gain from greater access to the Arctic seabed’s resources.

The five Arctic Ocean coastal states, including Russia, the United States, Norway, Denmark and Canada are determined so secure exclusive rights to a considerable area of seafloor extending to the edge of their respective continental shelves.

Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), states have ten years from the date of ratification to make claims to an extended continental shelf. Four of the five Arctic states Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the Russian Federation were to make known their desired claims by 2013, 2014, 2006, and 2007 respectively. Read more.

Since the United States has yet to ratify the UNCLOS, as a non-party to the convention, it cannot submit a claim under Article 76. Over the years, however, it has gathered and analyzed data to determine the outer limits of its extended continental shelf.

Sovereignty Issues

The Arctic is fundamental to Canada’s national identity, according to a 2011 Statement on Canada’s Arctic Foreign Policy – Exercising Sovereignty and Promoting Canada’s Northern Strategy Abroad.

Canada’s vision for the Arctic as outlined in that Statement is “a stable, rules-based region with clearly defined boundaries, dynamic economic growth and trade, vibrant Northern communities, and healthy and productive ecosystems.”

The Northern Strategy laid out in the Statement referenced four areas where Canada is taking action to advance its interests both domestically and internationally and to help unlock the North’s true potential:

*   Exercising sovereignty;
*   Promoting economic and social development;
*   Protecting our environmental heritage; and
*   Improving and devolving Northern governance.

Getting along with our Arctic neighbours has been a major theme in Canada’s strategy for protecting our sovereignty rights in this region.

A July 2013 report summarizing Canada’s Key Accomplishments and Initiatives Exercising Our Arctic Sovereignty also referenced Canada’s growing military presence in the region and the promise of increased funding for Coast Guard vessels and improved navigation. But it was short on hard facts of infrastructure spending.

A 2014 statement on military activities in the north asserts that “Canadian Armed Forces are active in the North 24/7, exercising sovereignty and exercising its capabilities to respond to any challenges that may arise.”  It too was thin on hard facts related to transportation or communications infrastructure improvements.

While policy statements surrounding Canada’s Arctic policy are forceful, actual investments made in Arctic navigation and communications infrastructure capabilities continue to be modest. The key reason is the high cost of anything in the Arctic.  Exercising sovereignty can be an expensive undertaking.

While infrastructure investments are only continuing at a modest pace, research on Arctic science has been growing in importance. ArcticNet, a Canadian Network of Centers of Excellence that brings together researchers in the natural, human health and social sciences, has funded researchers from Canadian universities on research projects in the North. The 2010 Canada Action Plan also includes several Arctic projects including a world-class research station in Cambridge Bay.

That same plan committed to provide meteorological information and navigational data to facilitate the safe management of marine traffic in in the Northwest Passage, in adjacent waters north of Alaska and along part of the western coast of Greenland.

Arctic Ice Coverage

However, as noted in a 2013 article in the Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, the Canadian government has delayed, scaled down and pushed aside its own plans for investments in Arctic capabilities, notably to prioritize support for Canadian deployments abroad.

For example the escalating costs of a long-delayed docking and refueling station at the Nanisivik naval facility at the eastern entrance to the Northwest Passage forced the federal government to scale back its original plans. To date, delays in infrastructure investments have not been seen as critical, as the prospects for significant increases in shipping through the northern passages is not thought to be imminent.

A 2014 report on the Northwest Territories and Arctic Maritime Development in the Beaufort Area by John Higginbotham and Marina Grosu published by the Centre for International Governance Innovation concludes that prospects for regular unobstructed passage through Canadian Arctic marine corridors for more than a few months per year are still many years into the future.

It also notes that such passage will be dependent on continued oceanic warming, the availability of the necessary maritime infrastructure and new generations of ice-capable ships and icebreakers. In all these areas, Canada is in short supply.

Of course, this view could change overnight if a catastrophic shipping incident took place.

United States Sovereignty Issues

The United States also has been actively building its policy stance to protect its national interests in the Arctic. On May 10, 2013, the Obama Administration released a document entitled National Strategy for the Arctic Region.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome on Jan. 6, 2012. Photo by USCG Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy breaks ice around the Russian-flagged tanker Renda 250 miles south of Nome on Jan. 6, 2012. Photo by USCG Petty Officer 1st Class Sara Francis.

The national Strategy document outlines measures to be undertaken to advance United States security interests to “enable our vessels and aircraft to operate, consistent with international law, through, under, and over the airspace and waters of the Arctic, support lawful commerce, achieve a greater awareness of activity in the region, and intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities, including ice-capable platforms as needed.”

It also spoke of efforts to pursue responsible Arctic Region stewardship, to strengthen international cooperation, efforts to safeguard peace and stability in the region, and the need to consult with Alaska Natives. The United States will take over leadership role of the Arctic Council this year and it is expected that this forum will become even more active on the matter of ensuring safe passage for shipping in Arctic waters.

An August 2014 Background and Issues Report prepared for the U.S. Congress by the Congressional Research Service provides one of the most comprehensive and up to date assessments of the many issues arising from the diminishing ice cover in Arctic waters.

While clearly focused on the importance of protecting U.S. interests in the regions, it nonetheless provides a useful overview of all issues of importance for the other nations in the Arctic Circle, especially for Canada and Russia.

Russia – The Other key Player in the Arctic



As noted earlier, Russia’s extensive development of its Northern Sea Route shipping lane, with supporting navigational aids, communications links, available ports and ice breaking capacity, has significantly strengthened its position as the dominant player in the northern waters.

And while recent sanctions imposed by other nations related to Russia’s adventures in the Ukraine have had some impact on shipping via the Northern Sea Route, the absence of comparable resources and support services in Canadian and U.S. waters does little to diminish Russia’s pre-eminence in this area.

Canada’s Shipping Policy

Canada’s sparse port and terminal services, modest ice breaking support, quite rudimentary navigational guidance and ice pilotage, limited search and rescue services and inadequate oil spill response capabilities in the North have long been matters of concern to shipping experts.

The risks of an oil spill in Arctic waters and the limited capacity to respond to such an incident have been known for some time. (See report by the Pew Charitable Trusts on Becoming Arctic Ready)

A 2009 Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report prepared for the Arctic Council noted that even though the Northwest Passage was not expected to become a viable trans-Arctic route before 2020, destination shipping in these waters was likely to increase.

Similar thoughts were echoed in a 2014 Discussion Paper issued as part of a Review of the Canada Transportation Act (CTA) by Hon. David L. Emerson, P.C.

He stated the Government of Canada does not expect the Northwest Passage to be a safe or reliable marine transportation route in the near future, due to multiple navigational challenges. However, improved conditions may mean that there will be more ships accessing the Northwest Passage for tourism, seasonal re-supply, research activities and natural resource exploration.

Both documents reasoned that the most significant threat from ships to the Arctic marine environment is the release of oil through accidental or illegal discharges, in part due to significant gaps in hydrographical data for major portions of the primary shipping routes necessary to support safe navigation.

A 2010 article on National Security and Canada’s Shipping Policy: We Can Do Better, by Dick Hodgson argued that should wish to be a leader in Arctic marine transportation operations it will have to make fundamental changes to our national shipping policies.

The almost complete dominance of commercial shipping in the Canadian Arctic by foreign flag vessels (apart from modest cabotage activities associated with community resupply), he notes,  clearly heightens the threats to Canada’s Arctic security in all its forms – environmental, sovereignty, national security access to resources and impacts on Indigenous cultures.

He argues that the adoption of policy measures that stimulate ownership and operation of Canadian flag shipping  above and beyond protected cabotage activities not only would contribute to enhanced security in all its forms, it would stimulate expanded Canadian Arctic marine leadership and expertise.


Even though ice-free and open navigation through whatever passage route in the Arctic may be years away, accelerating change from both global warming and increased industrialization are emerging on the horizon.

Ocean routes are opening up resulting in substantial shorter distances to carry cargo, especially to Asian markets and various projects planned or underway by the Department of National Defence will also impact on commerce in northern waters.

Cruise ships are already operating in coastal remote communities, and deep sea drilling is accelerating in the Beaufort Sea, regardless of the lack of suitable infrastructure in place to manage a possible large scale spill.

The potential industrial benefits from new shipping routes, resource extraction, construction projects and Arctic tourism loom large, and the risks to the fragile Arctic environment arising from any increase in shipping and resource development activities are profound.

So too are the perils associated with ensuring access to the Arctic’s sub-sea bounty, protecting national sovereignty rights, and ensuring the safety of sea borne commerce.

The disappearing ice cover in the Arctic has revealed far more than potentially navigable open waters. It has revealed also the enormity of the economic, social and environmental risks looming in Canada’s northern boundaries, risks we are not well equipped to manage.

Clearly, the coming decade will be a critical period for change in the North.

Cda in Arctic Ice

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