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2020 Future Scenario for the Northwest Passage (NWP) and the Canadian Arctic

(from AMSA Report 2009)


The Canadian maritime Arctic is located across the north of Canada from the Beaufort Sea in the west to Hudson Strait in the east, covering approximately 2.1 million km². The Arctic Archipelago comprises approximately 36,000 islands, including three of the world’s 10 largest islands. The coastal area is sparsely populated with fewer than 30,000 people. The Canadian Arctic also provides important habitat for a range of permanent and migratory species of marine mammals, seabirds and terrestrial animals such as caribou. Throughout this region there are many ecologically sensitive areas where animals gather in large numbers at certain times and may be vulnerable to impacts from shipping.

The Canadian Arctic has a long and rich history of marine use, beginning with its indigenous residents many thousands of years ago. Shipping in the Canadian Arctic has always been the safest and most economically effective means of moving goods to, from and within the region. It is a vast area with virtually no roads, no rail lines and where air services are both infrequent and very costly. There are also unique geographic and climatic conditions that make the region challenging for maritime navigation, including the presence of ice for most of the year, as well as the many narrow and shallow, often uncharted, areas through the archipelago. Canada has for many years strived to achieve a balance between development and environmental protection in its Arctic areas and for this purpose has a unique and extensive regulatory scheme in place to enhance marine safety and environmental protection in its Arctic waters. This regulatory scheme was ahead of its time when it was first established in the 1970s and is now in need of updating in order to bring it in line with recently developed international standards.

Sea Ice Conditions

Sea ice observations for the past three decades from the Canadian Ice Service show negative trends in coverage for the eastern and western regions of the Canadian maritime Arctic. The observations also show a very high, year-to-year variability of sea ice coverage in all regions, an important factor of uncertainty when considering marine insurance, investment, ship construction standards and other aspects of Arctic marine transport. Due to the unique geographic characteristics of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago (with many channels oriented north-south), the region is also expected to be one of the last areas of the Arctic Ocean to have a significant summer ice cover. It is plausible that if sea ice melt in the central Arctic Ocean continues, as many climate models indicate, there is a potential for more mobile multi-year sea ice to be swept southward through many of the northern passages of the archipelago. For the whole of the Arctic Ocean, including the Canadian maritime Arctic and Northwest Passage, global climate models indicate that sea ice will be present throughout the winter and for approximately nine months during each year. The Canadian maritime Arctic will have a generally more favorable sea ice situation in a short, summer period, but will be ice-covered for a majority of the year, a significant factor for Arctic transport regulation and protection of the marine environment.

Indigenous Use

The sea is very important to the way of life and culture. Inuit do not distinguish the water from the land in terms of their hunting and culture. All of the communities in the Canadian Arctic are coastal or situated on major waterways. Whether traveling in a boat or over the ice, the water provides a means of transportation, a connection between communities and a source of food. Though their technologies and style of living may have changed dramatically in the past hundred years, the Inuit are still by and large hunters who rely on country foods for a large portion of their diet. Some of the most important country foods are seal, walrus and whale, all of which are harvested on the ice edge or by boat. Any disruption of the ecosystem, such as an oil spill, dumping of waste or noise from machinery or ships could have effects on the animals and, therefore, the health and well-being of the Inuit. Despite the benefits of increased community re-supply, general shipping is a cause for concern to the Inuit. Vessels may scare away mammals needed for subsistence; they break ice tracks, disrupting travel on the ice via snowmobile and ships may affect wildlife in harbors and elsewhere.

Current Commercial Use

The types of commercial shipping activity currently taking place in the Canadian Arctic consist of community re-supply; bulk shipments of raw materials, supplies and exploration activity for resource development operations; and tourism. Commercial re-supply activities are serviced by southern points of origin, one in the west and several in the east. In the western Arctic, most cargo is moved by tugs and barges from Hay River down the Mackenzie River to Tuktoyaktuk for transfer and consolidation. Conventional ocean-going general cargo vessels typically handle cargo in the eastern Arctic. Cargo is lightered ashore using small tugs and barges that are carried with the ships. Currently, there are no commercial vessels that regularly transit the Northwest Passage, aside from a few small specialty cruise operators. Other commercial shipping activities in the Canadian Arctic include a single-base metal operation in Deception Bay that ships nickel concentrates to Quebec, and grain shipments from Churchill to international markets. Exploration and resource development is ongoing. Recently, there has been heavy demand for logistics and supplies in both the eastern and western Arctic, particularly in the Beaufort Sea and at the Mary River iron ore mine, which shipped 120,000 tonnes of bulk cargo to European mills during the 2008 season.

Future Marine Use

Destinational shipping is anticipated to increase in the Canadian Arctic. This will be driven largely by the demand for goods by growing communities, expanding resource development projects, as well as increasing tourism. The changing climate will result in increased accessibility and a longer shipping season, which will in turn also affect future activity levels. By 2020, it is projected that annual resupply demand will increase enough that the current fleet will not be sufficient to meet the needs, despite the likelihood of a longer shipping season. In addition, the current fleet is aging and most ships would likely need to be replaced within that timeframe.

It is anticipated that the primary areas of increased marine activity will be resource driven. The lack of infrastructure and high operational costs have, until recently, made this region uneconomical for large-scale resource development. However, during the next 20 years, new bulk exports are expected to include: Mary River iron ore from a port at Steensby Inlet in the Foxe Basin, with possible commencement in 2010; Roche Bay magnetite from a port near Igloolik in the Foxe Basin, possibly beginning in 2015; and High/Izok Lake lead/zinc/copper concentrate shipping from either Gray’s Bay or Bathurst Inlet, possibly starting in the same year. Imports will likely include logistics and fuel for the primary resource operations noted above; logistics and fuel, as well as barge-mounted production modules for the proposed Mackenzie pipeline; and delivery of production modules to the Alberta Oil Sands, among others. High operational costs in the Canadian Arctic are a limiting factor in this region. As a result, it may be many years before the Canadian Arctic matches the volume of resources extracted from Alaska or the Russian Arctic regions.

While the summer climate in the Canadian Arctic region is changing, ice will be present during most of the year and especially during the long, cold polar nights each winter. As a result, access to the Northwest Passage will continue to be controlled by ice conditions. Despite widespread speculation, the uncertainty of conditions in the Northwest Passage due to seasonal variability, changing ice conditions, complexity of routes, depth restrictions, lack of adequate charts and other infrastructure, high insurance and other costs, will diminish the likelihood of regular scheduled services. With the exception of nuclear icebreakers, very few ships have been built that could safely carry out year-round commercial navigation in the Canadian Arctic. The continued presence of ice even in open water will mean that operational costs will continue to be high.

Canadian Arctic Shipping Activity - Expectations to 2020:

• Dry bulk carriage stimulated by resource development: definitive forecasts of substantive marine transportation projects are, for now, Mary River and High Lake developments.

• Liquid bulk carriage stimulated by resource development: minimal forecasts due to expectations that any substantive products in the Beaufort Sea will move out by pipeline.

• Supply/resupply: some important but manageable expansion in shipping activity is forecast, related to growing

populations and for movement of supplies and equipment in support of exploration projects.

• Cruise shipping: projections of modest but largely unpredictable growth.

• Container, bulk transit traffic: no substantive activity seen in this sector in the timeframe under examination.

• Other: unknown activity for fishing, seismic, etc.



1] The Northwest Passage is not expected to become a viable trans-Arctic route through 2020 due to seasonality, ice conditions, a complex archipelago, draft restrictions, chokepoints, lack of adequate charts, insurance limitations and other costs, which diminish the likelihood of regularly scheduled services from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

2] Destinational shipping is anticipated to increase in the Canadian Arctic, driven by increasing demand for seasonal re-supply activity, expanding resource development and tourism.

3] In the Canadian Arctic, ice conditions and high operational costs will continue to be a factor into the future. Irrespective of the warming climate, ice will remain throughout the winter, making viable year-round operations expensive.

4] Canada has a specific regulatory system for shipping in Arctic waters that is in need of an update in line with recently developed international standards.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©