Breaking the Ice: Arctic Development and Maritime Transportation

(from AMSA Report 2009. Organized by the Icelandic Government, March 2007)


Hosted by Iceland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in March 2007, the “Breaking the Ice: Arctic Development and Maritime Transportation” conference provided the first opportunity under the International Polar Year banner for marine specialists and stakeholders to exchange information on Arctic shipping and the prospects of a trans-Arctic route between the North Atlantic and the Pacific oceans.

Designed as a contribution to the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, 90 delegates from all the Arctic countries, the United Kingdom, China and the European Commission discussed and debated issues on three key policy issues: the future of research and monitoring in the Arctic, the status of emergency prevention and response and the viability of trans-Arctic shipping. The following are some of the observations made at the seminar:

• The extraordinary retreat of Arctic sea ice and the rapid decrease in multi-year ice has increased marine access throughout the Arctic basin and coastal seas.

• The development of “double acting Arctic ships,” equally fit for open ocean and navigation through ice without icebreaker assistance, opens the possibility of year-round trans-Arctic container traffic between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific oceans. A number of double acting tankers and containerships are already operating in the Arctic. The economics and icebreaking capacity of such ships improve with larger size.

• Improved remote sensing technologies will make it possible to provide information on ice thickness and ice ridges. The emergence of ice forecast services can be used for plotting sailing routes through the ice.

• The globalization of world economy and rapid growth in international trade has led to capacity constraints of the Panama and Suez canals, hampering the integration of North Atlantic economies with fast growing economies in East and Southeast Asia. Trans-Arctic shipping would supplement present transportation routes and spur economic development.

• The opening of a trans-Arctic route would enhance economic security of the world. Present transportation links between the North Atlantic and emerging economies in the Far East are precarious. They are subject to delays because of accidents, mechanical breakdowns and maintenance, and they are vulnerable to disruption because of terrorist activities, regional conflicts and piracy.

• The high cost of technical development and infrastructure make it unlikely for private stakeholders to commence regular trans-Arctic transportation without governmental support.

• International cooperation for the development of trans-Arctic shipping should include stakeholders outside of the Arctic. Chinese delegates at the conference expressed a willingness to cooperate with the Arctic states in the research and development of Arctic shipping.

• Changing ice conditions may make it challenging to maintain tight transportation schedules and ensure the punctuality of certain cargoes. Enhanced monitoring, improved sea ice information and more efficient icebreaking carriers would significantly improve the situation.

• A comprehensive feasibility study is needed to estimate the commercial viability of trans-Arctic shipping, taking into account a wide range of economic and natural variables, including vessel cost, ice conditions, sailing speed on different routes, etc. New shipping routes and technologies should be pioneered with experimental voyages in order to gather better information on the shipping conditions and viability of new shipping routes.

• Care must be taken to minimize environmental effects of increased shipping activity in the Arctic. The capacity of the Arctic states for emergency response must be increased with appropriate equipment, materials and sufficient towing capacity, made available for various situations close to development sites and shipping routes. The Arctic Council can play a role in coordinating response to emergencies related to the shipping through the EPPR working group.

• While voluntary or recommended guidelines for Arctic shipping have been adopted by IMO, the movement toward mandatory rules for Arctic shipping must be accelerated.

• One presenter proposed the use of nuclear ships for trans- Arctic shipping to decrease the release of greenhouse gases and prevent the “graying” of the ice. Furthermore, nuclear ships would be relatively cheaper to operate in view of high and rising fuel costs.

• The participants agreed in general that Iceland could play a role in the opening of a trans-Arctic sea route because of its location in the middle of the Northern Atlantic. The new shipping routes that pass near Iceland (routes of commercial ships from Northwest Russia and northern Norway sailing to North America) could be linked by Iceland serving as a hub for container traffic in the northern Atlantic region.

The participants in the seminar concluded that experimental and limited trans-Arctic commercial voyages through the central Arctic Ocean could start during the summer navigation season within a decade; and that a year-round trans-Arctic marine transportation route between the North Atlantic and the North Pacific oceans could plausibly open in one or two decades, considering security, economic and environmental factors.


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