Current Arctic Marine Use        

Current Arctic Marine Use

(from AMSA Report 2009)


As noted earlier, Arctic shipping has existed since the late 1400s, mostly on the periphery of the region. As in the past, most commercial activity today is generally linked to supplying communities or exporting raw goods out of the Arctic. The number of ships operating today in the Arctic is significant in the context of both the unique aspects of the Arctic environment and the insufficient infrastructure and emergency response in many parts of the region, relative to southern waters.

However, from the outlook of the global maritime industry, the level of vessel activity found to occur in the 2004 baseline year is still relatively low. To put it into perspective, the total number of vessels reported as operating in the Arctic region (not including fishing vessels and the Great Circle Route traffic) represents less than 2 percent of the world’s registered fleet of oceangoing vessels over 100 gross tonnage. Although the total vessels operating in the Arctic may represent a small proportion of the world’s fleet, they can still have significant impacts on the environment in which they operate. At current shipping activity levels, it will not take many more ships operating in the Arctic in future years to double or triple the 2004 numbers.

Most shipping traffic in the Arctic is in waters that are either permanently or seasonally ice-free, an important distinction. Permanently ice-free waters include those in the Aleutian island chain, the northern coast of Norway, southern Iceland and the Murmansk region in northwest Russia. In other areas of the Arctic, which are seasonally ice-covered, nearly all the vessel activity occurring in 2004 took place in waters where the ice had melted or was melting and where icebreakers are not required for access. However, an area can be determined to be ice-free and still have ice-related dangers, such as bergy bits and pan ice, which are hard to detect and can damage a vessel.

In recent years, given the changing ice conditions in the Arctic, much attention has been paid to possible trans-Arctic shipping via the central Arctic Ocean, Northwest Passage or the Northern Sea Route. In the AMSA 2004 database, it was found that vessels operated on sections of both the NSR and NWP; however, there were no full transits by commercial vessels on any of three routes. The vessels reported as operating in the Northwest Passage were either community re-supply or Canadian Coast Guard. On the Northern Sea Route, the only vessels reported were bulk carriers and tankers for community re-supply. None sailed the full route, and the only Russian traffic through the Bering Strait were bulk carriers servicing communities on the far northeast of Russia coming from the Bering Sea. In 2004, no ships transited the entire Arctic Ocean from the Pacific to the Atlantic or vice versa.

The only vessels that went into the central Arctic Ocean in 2004 were the eight trips made to the North Pole, three of which were research vessels carrying out a core drilling expedition and five Russian nuclear icebreakers for tourism purposes. Apart from those trips, all the vessel activity in 2004 took place around its periphery and largely in coastal waters.

In the four years that have passed since the AMSA 2004 baseline year for shipping activity, there has already been an increase in vessel activity in certain sectors. As discussed earlier, cruise vessels have been traveling to the Arctic in rapidly increasing numbers. There has also been new activity in other types of vessel traffic, particularly in the Barents, Kara and Norwegian seas. An Arctic tanker shuttle system has been established to support a route from a new Russian terminal in Varandey in the Pechora Sea to Murmansk and direct to global markets. The first 70,000 dwt tanker for this service, Vasily Dinkov, delivered its initial cargo to eastern Canada in June 2008; two additional icebreaking tankers for this operation have been built in South Korean shipyards. Two similar icebreaking tankers, under construction in St. Petersburg, will be used to ship oil from the Prirazlomnoye oil field in the northern Pechora Sea to a floating terminal in Murmansk. Again, year-round operations are envisioned in seasonally ice-covered waters, in this case to provide a continuous supply of oil to Murmansk for subsequent export by supertanker.

Off the coast of the Norwegian Arctic, the Snohvit (“Snow White”) gas complex is now operational and its first shipment of gas arrived in Spain via an LNG carrier in October 2007; another shipment of Snohvit LNG was delivered to the U.S. East Coast in February 2008. LNG carrier operations out of northern Norway to world markets are poised to increase during the next decade and Norwegian Arctic offshore production is forecast through 2035.

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. Increasing Arctic marine operations off Alaska in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas to support oil and gas exploration are envisioned for the next decade.

While the AMSA database only looks at the year 2004, it is apparent, based on anecdotal information, that Arctic marine vessel activity is in a state of transition. The current types of vessel activities seen today are in support of community re-supply, bulk natural resource shipments, fishing and tourism. It appears there will be a growth in all Arctic shipping sectors, as well as the possible emergence of new opportunities.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

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

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