Arctic Marine Infrastructure

(from ASMA Report 2009)


When compared with marine infrastructure in the world’s other oceans, the Arctic is significantly lacking throughout most of the circumpolar north. The current increase in human activity in the Arctic is placing new demands on Arctic infrastructure needed to support safe marine shipping, protect the environment and respond to emergencies. Anticipated increases in Arctic marine shipping during the coming decades will place additional demands on infrastructure and require innovative, cooperative solutions that best use the limited resources available in this remote region.

The findings contained in this section are the result of extensive input received across a wide spectrum of interests from those experienced in Arctic marine operations, including representatives from the Arctic states. The analysis of current Arctic infrastructure included surveys based on information from the Arctic states regarding Arctic ports, capabilities for handling larger vessels, search and rescue assets and icebreaker capacity. In addition, an international workshop was held at the University of New Hampshire in March 2008 to consider infrastructure needs and gaps associated with emergency response to Arctic incidents. Workshop participants represented a broad spectrum of expertise including governmental agencies, industry, non-governmental organizations and indigenous people from the Arctic nations. The workshop, “Opening the Arctic Seas: Envisioning Disasters and Framing Solutions,” considered five realistic emergency scenarios in diverse locations throughout the Arctic. Incidents envisioned involved vessels caught in ice or in a collision, oil spills, search and rescue, environmental damage and disruption of indigenous communities. The workshop report provides a qualitative analysis of risk factors for Arctic marine incidents likely to happen as shipping, tourism, exploration and development of natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals increase with the retreating ice cover.

Major Arctic infrastructure themes emerged and are reflected throughout this section and its findings. Currently, vast areas of the Arctic have insufficient infrastructure to support safe marine shipping and respond to marine incidents in the Arctic. This includes such critical infrastructure components as the accuracy and availability of timely information needed for safe navigation; availability of search and rescue assets, pollution response assets and supporting shoreside infrastructure to respond appropriately to marine incidents; port reception facilities for ship-generated waste; and availability of deep-water ports, places of refuge and salvage resources for vessels in distress. While there are notable exceptions, where infrastructure is more developed, they are the exception rather than the rule. To assist with ship navigation, locating refuges, pollution response and other activities, adequate weather forecasting and warning capabilities are essential and necessitate adequate observations, models and forecasts.

Emergency response is particularly challenging in the Arctic for a variety of reasons, including the remoteness and great distances that are often involved in responding; the impacts of cold, ice and a harsh operating environment on response personnel and equipment; and the lack of shoreside infrastructure and communications to support and sustain a response of any significant magnitude. Prevention of marine accidents, and actions designed to strengthen the effectiveness of preventive measures, are especially critical for Arctic marine shipping given the difficulties of responding once an incident has occurred. Preventive measures include ensuring that vessels operating in the Arctic meet appropriate design, construction and equipment standards; that vessel personnel have the specialized skills needed for operating in Arctic conditions, including operations in ice-infested waters where applicable; and that information needed for safe navigation is available, from accurate charts to timely information on meteorological and ice conditions and on other vessel traffic and activities in the area.

While there are many challenges associated with strengthening Arctic marine shipping infrastructure, there are also opportunities to develop measures to improve safe marine shipping operations and protect the Arctic environment in anticipation of the continuing increase in Arctic marine activity, rather than responding after an incident has occurred. Considering the long lead time to put marine infrastructure in place, this should be considered early in the prioritization process.

To the mariner, there are several environmental factors that make the Arctic uniquely difficult to navigate compared to temperate waters. These include: presence and movement of sea ice, icebergs, cold air and water temperatures, variable and often unpredictable severe weather, magnetic variation, solar flare activity and extended daylight or nighttime conditions. These environmental conditions, combined with the remoteness of the region from commercial shipping centers and shipping lanes, highlight the need for improved systems to support safe navigation in the Arctic region.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

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

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