Comparison of Communication and Navigational Systems on Arctic Routes

(by Karl Magnus Eger)


IMO has divided Arctic waters into Search and Rescue coordination and responsibility areas (see Figure 5.3). Canada is responsible for providing meteorological information, traffic services and coordination of the eastern part of the Bering Strait, the northern slope of Alaska and the NWP. Russia is responsible for the NEP, from the Barents Sea in the west to the Bering Sea in the east. However there is no SAR coordination north of 90° N, which means that no states are responsible for SAR on the TPP.

The Northeast Passage

Radio communications and satellites are generally adequate for the NSR. Three satellite systems can support NSR operations today: the INMARSAT system, the OCEAN system and the IRIDIUM commercial system. In addition, Vessel Traffic Management and Information Systems (VTMIS) is used for distribution of vessel traffic and marine transport data to improve the safety of ship operations. The VTMIS have been used on the NSR for decades. Furthermore, the Russians now want to integrate new communication services to the system, such as emergency services, that is currently not part of the system. The Russians recently presented plans for development of communications services until 2020, but it is uncertain whether they will receive financial funding. Nevertheless, it has been recognized that the Russian satellites are not always capable to provide Arctic navigation with reliable data due to technical problems.  

The compound geography of the NSR in combination with marine traffic requires the installation of various navigational aids at important waypoints (i.e. radio beacons, lighted marks, radar beacons, radar reflectors etc.). Nevertheless, the coast of the NSR is relatively low and flat, which makes it difficult to use radar. Thus, it has been necessary to equip the NSR with high-accuracy positioning systems. The Global Positioning System is used by ships on the NSR to determine the precise position for civilian users. However, the GPS constellation is not configured for optimal positioning in high latitudes. For higher accuracy a Differential Global Positioning System (DGPS) has been introduced. The plan is to cover all NSR areas with DGPS.

The Russian icebreaker fleet is the world's strongest, in terms of both icebreaking capability and number of ships. So far, Russia has built ten nuclear powered icebreakers, but only five remains operative, capable for year round operations on the NSR. In addition, two nuclear powered icebreakers are operational on rivers (see table 5.2). Generally, the NSR icebreaker support operations are divided, west and east, between two organizations, the Atomflot headquartered in Murmansk and the Far East Shipping Company (FESCO), headquartered in Vladivostok. The nuclear icebreaker fleet, services the western section of the NSR extending from Murmansk to River Lena as well as river ports on major Siberian Rivers. In addition, Russia holds several diesel powered icebreakers operating on rivers and supports ships when entering various ports on the NEP/NSR.

The Northwest Passage

The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) operates two seasonal Marine Communication and Traffic Services (MCTS) centres, one in Iqaluit and the other in Inuvik (see Figure 5.10) The MCTS program provides marine safety communications and manages the movement of vessel traffic. Currently, MCTS are seasonal opening in the end of May and close in the end of November. However, the systems’ capability to regulate movements of commercial traffic is rather limited.

A vessel traffic zone referred to as the Northern Traffic Reporting System (NORDREG) has been developed. Nonetheless, at this time it is not mandatory reporting to Canadian authorities when entering the NWP.  Between 95 and 98 % of the total amount of voyages reported their entering and exit in 2009.This means that there are ships having navigated the NWP without the knowledge of the authorities. The CCG can report that it occurs that cruise ships with up to 200 passengers do not report their entrance because the NORDREG does not require so. Nonetheless, the Canadian government has announced plans to move NORDREG from the current encouraged reporting provisions to a mandatory reporting system for ships entering the Passage.

For most of NWP, the Canadian Military Forces provide SAR aircraft from Trenton, while the CCG relies primarily on its helicopters and icebreakers. Regardless, there is a long distance from Trenton to any area of the NWP, which means it would take a long time to provide any rescue operation by air transport (see Figure 5.4). There are very limited modern Aids to Navigation along the NWP. There is, for instance, no Differential Global Positioning System available. However, there are some marine navigation aids on the NWP, maintained by the CCG, ranging from radar reflectors to buoys, lights, ranges and beacons. However, most of these are for the benefit of community access, not for transits by vessels between the eastern and western NWP.

Every summer 6 CCG icebreakers (2 heavy, 3 medium and 1 light) are deployed to the NWP at the end of June (see Table 5.3). Anticipated longer active shipping season on the NWP raises a number of service level issues for the Government. One of them concerns the development of icebreaker services. Furthermore, the CCG is faced with an aging fleet and most of the ships date to the late 1970s early 1980s. However, the current Government has committed 720 million Canadian dollars for a new Polar Icebreaker, expected to be launched by 2015.

The Trans Polar Passage

When considering possibilities for the TPP, there is currently no active vessel traffic service or other traffic management system in place. Shore-based radio communication services are also limited. Future navigation through the TPP will require significant improvements of marine communication technology. Moreover, once the high latitudinal is reached, voice and data transmission become problematic. Satellite systems such as the IRIDIUM constellations provide worldwide coverage including the Arctic. The feasibility of communicating ice charts and satellite images to ships in the Arctic via the IRIDIUM system has been demonstrated but communications are limited. In addition, the GPS constellation is not configured for optimal positioning in high latitudes, resulting in a potential degradation of position accuracy. This can make marine transportation on the TPP challenging in the future.

The Passages in Comparison

Today, there are different levels of developed Search and Rescue services between the three transport corridors.

Before any vessel can enter the NSR, the Marine Operations Headquarters requires a control inspection in west or east. Today, Canada operates a voluntary reporting system for vessels entering the NWP and there are examples of ships not reporting their entrance to the Canadian authorities.   

Russia has a considerable larger and stronger icebreaker fleet to support operations on the NSR than Canada has for the NWP. Russia has 5 nuclear icebreakers available for NSR support, in addition, several river and diesel icebreakers operating on a year-round basis. Canada operates 6 icebreakers (2 heavy, 3 medium and 1 light) for seasonal (Mai-November) NWP operations. Both fleets are aging and needs improvements.

Overall, there are limited aids to navigation and traffic service systems in order to support navigation for all Passages. Available Search and Rescue facilities diverge between the NEP, the NWP and the TPP.  Global Positioning Systems are adequate for the coastal routes and marine routes of the NSR, but on the NWP it is very limited. The GPS coverage is not optimal in high latitudes which mean that position accuracy for the TPP is insufficient.


    Karl Magnus Eger, 2010, Comparison of Communication and Navigational Systems on Arctic Routes, CHNL.©