Bulk Transport of Oil, Gas and Ore in the Arctic

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Bulk transport of commodities such as oil, gas and various types of ore is a significant portion of total Arctic vessel traffic in 2004 in volume of cargo transported. There are some very large mines in the Arctic producing commodities such as nickel, zinc and other ores, as well as oil and gas producing fields off the coast of Norway and in the Russian and U.S. Arctic. The Red Dog mine in Alaska is one of the world’s largest zinc mines. The Norilsk Nickel mine near the port of Dudinka in the Russian Federation is also the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium. Nearly all bulk traffic in the Arctic is outbound, shipping extracted natural resources out of the region to the world’s markets. In 2004, there were no Arctic transits of bulk goods east, west or through the central Arctic Ocean.

Most bulk transport takes place during the ice-free season or in ice-free parts of the Arctic including the Norwegian Arctic and parts of the Russian Arctic such as Murmansk. The exceptions are high-value perishable cargoes such as the concentrates from the Dudinka region and the nickel from Deception Bay in northern Quebec, Canada, which must be shipped year-round because they degrade if left too long without processing. In 2004, these two operations were the only all-season operations recorded in seasonally ice-covered parts of the Arctic, which demonstrates that given economic incentive, year-round operations may be possible in other areas where ice is a limiting factor. In other Arctic mining areas that are ice-locked throughout the winter, bulk cargoes are stored during winter and spring and are shipped out in the brief ice-free summer/autumn season. Because some of the mines, such as Red Dog, produce very large amounts of ore, the ice-free season means heavy traffic and carefully planned bulk shipments to ensure mines get all of the ore out before the fall ice forms. Large bulk carriers, Panamax and Handymax size up to 65,000 tons, visit Red Dog mine in Alaska during the short summer season. Many of the bulk carriers operating throughout the Arctic in the summer are not ice-strengthened or Polar Class.

Development of the rich natural resources in the Arctic is a rapidly growing industry. Since 2004, several significant new bulk shipments have begun operations, such as the year-round oil shipments out of Varandey in the Russian Arctic. In early 2008, an offshore lease sale conducted by the U.S. Minerals Management Service for the U.S. Arctic totaled nearly $US2.7 billion; offshore gas appears to be the resource under consideration for development in this Arctic region. In June 2008, the Government of Canada received record breaking bids for oil and gas exploration leases in the Beaufort Sea, including a $C1.2 billion bid for the rights to explore an offshore area of 611,000 hectares. In September 2008, a test shipment of some of the purest iron ore found on the planet was delivered to Europe from the Baffinland mine in Mary River on Baffin Island. Depending on the regulatory review, the mine could begin year-round operations in the next 3-5 years. As planned resource development projects such as these become operational, bulk carrier traffic in the Arctic will continue to increase. This type of ship activity is likely where the most growth will be witnessed in the near future.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

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