History of Arctic Marine Transport

(from AMSA Report 2009)


There is a long history of Arctic marine transport conducted primarily around the ice-free periphery of the Arctic Ocean. Year-round navigation has been maintained since 1978-79 in the ice-covered western regions of the Northern Sea Route (between the port of Dudinka on the Yenisei River and Murmansk). Previous Arctic marine transport studies for the Northern Sea Route, Canadian Arctic, Alaska’s coastal seas and other regions have significant relevance to developing any future regulatory framework for the Arctic Ocean. Most of these past studies involved public-private partnerships and close international cooperation.


The Arctic Ocean and adjacent seas have been used by mariners since the beginning of time. Historical Arctic marine transport activities reflect continuous indigenous marine use, expeditions and explorations, community supply/ re-supply and expanding use by the global shipping community. The first Arctic explorers were the indigenous people. Though most of their journeys remain undocumented, indigenous people have been traveling and exploring Arctic waters for thousands of years in search of food, supplies and settlement areas. They remain the original explorers and founders of the region.

Early Western marine transport in the Arctic was driven by searches for the Northwest Passage and Northeast Passage (Table 3.1). With the passages discovered, the focus shifted from searching to improving marine routes. Many notable Arctic voyages occurred and the scope of Arctic marine shipping advanced such that vessels even ventured to the then elusive North Pole. Advances in ship design, construction and operation, coupled with advancements in infrastructure, crew training and governance, have led to massive improvements in Arctic shipping.

Table 3.1 Arctic coastal state maritime jurisdictional zone claims 

Source: AMSA

This section will review briefly the rich history of the search and development of the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Archipelago, the Northeast Passage and later the Northern Sea Route along the northern coastline of Russia, as well as the history of Arctic tourism that can be found throughout the Arctic today.

Northwest Passage

The first European Arctic explorer was the Greek navigator Pytheas who sailed northward in 325 B.C. and is credited with having reached the vicinity of Iceland and perhaps even Greenland. In the late 9th century (aided by a period of worldwide climatic warming), the Norwegians found and colonized Iceland. Later Icelandic explorers found and colonized Greenland, and explored the northeast coast of North America.

It was not until the 1490s that Europeans began to investigate the possibility of a Northwest Passage (NWP) in order to find a more direct route to the Orient and the lucrative trade with India, Southeast Asia and China. In 1497, John Cabot sailed from Bristol in Matthew in an unsuccessful search for the passage.

Canadian place names reflect some of the many attempts that followed, with most via Hudson Bay, including Martin Frobisher, John Davis, Henry Hudson and Luke Foxe. In 1778, James Cook made the first attempt at locating the NWP from the west. In the 1800s, the Royal Navy explored the labyrinth of islands and channels that is now the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. In 1845, Sir John Franklin’s ships, the Erebus and Terror, sailed north into Baffin Bay and disappeared. The Royal Navy mounted a massive search during the following decade for Franklin and his 129 men and as a result, the entire archipelago was explored.

It wasn’t until 1906 that Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen in his 47 ton sloop Gjoa emerged in the Pacific to become the first vessel to complete the NWP. Amundsen took three winters to complete the voyage and credit for his survival through the harsh Canadian winters goes to the Inuit. The first complete transit from west to east was completed in 1942 by the Canadian ship St. Roch. Captain Henry Larsen made the return trip from east to west in only 86 days and became the first vessel to transit the NWP in one season. Transits of the NWP after the St. Roch remained fairly sporadic until the 1970s.

In the period from 1945 to 1969, national security was the primary driver for navigation in the passage: the Canadian icebreaker HMCS Labrador became the first ship after the St. Roch, as well as the first armed Canadian ship to successfully complete transit of the NWP. Three years later, the Labrador escorted three U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers - Storis, Spar and Bramble - on part of the journey from west to east through the NWP.

From the 1969 voyage of the American oil tanker Manhattan (discussed later in this section) to the end of the 1980s, more than 30 complete transits of the passage were undertaken by a variety of vessels, as the focus shifted from national security to economic development. The bulk of the transits were Canadian vessels involved in the search for hydrocarbon resources offshore in the Canadian shelf in the Beaufort Sea. Also included in the period were tankers carrying fuel for the various explorations and bulk carriers transporting ore from the Nanisivik mine on Strathcona Sound. The year 1993 saw the Government of Canada spearhead an initiative bringing together various international shipping companies and Arctic coastal states in an attempt to develop a shared set of international standards that could govern the operation and construction of vessels that would function in Arctic waters.

Growing population in the 21st century, together with increases in community re-supply and oil and gas development, has led to a greater demand for shipping in the region. The uncertainty of the NWP due to seasonality, ice conditions, complex archipelago, draft restrictions, choke points, lack of adequate charts, insurance and other costs prohibits the likelihood of regularly scheduled trans- Arctic voyages; yet destinational shipping is anticipated to increase incrementally in the Canadian Arctic. Although community growth will drive a steady increase in the demand for seasonal re-supply activity, the primary areas of increased activity will be resource driven.

Cold War Marine Activity: Construction of the DEW Line

The Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line was a linked chain of 63 communication and radar systems, spanning 3,000 miles – from Alaska’s northwest coast to Baffin Island’s eastern shore opposite Greenland - set up to detect incoming Soviet bombers during the Cold War. It was located entirely within the Arctic Circle, with 42 of the 63 sites situated on Canadian territory.

Between 1954 and 1957, the DEW Line was constructed, and more than 300 ships plied Arctic waters during the two summer navigation seasons carrying more than 300,000 tonnes of cargo. This initiative allowed access into the Canadian Arctic through three major sealifts: the West Coast Sea Lift, the East Coast Sea Lift and the Inland Sea Lift.

Many of the ships lacked ice-capability, a fact that often resulted in shorn propeller blades and hull punctures. Beyond retroactive measures, such as adding a nickel-aluminum-bronze alloy propeller or steel sheathing, the American Military Sea Transportation Service engaged in a construction program that saw the building of ships designed specifically for operation in an Arctic environment. A new class of tankers included construction features that were standard for Arctic vessels, such as cargo booms and a secondary wheelhouse.

Largely as a result of American interest in the North, Canada was driven to acquire icebreakers and cultivate a greater navigational ability in Arctic waters. Increases to Canada’s Arctic vessel capacity, in the early-to-mid 1950s, took the form of the CGS d’Iberville (1952) and the HMCS Labrador (1954).

The U.S. fleet was split into two task forces. The first - with three icebreakers, a pair of tankers, 27 cargo ships and nearly two-dozen support craft - sailed east and around Point Barrow, bringing with it supplies that would be delivered to the Northern Transportation Company. The second and larger task force comprised seven icebreakers, a dozen tankers, 14 support vessels, four passenger ships and 31 cargo ships. In 1957, the U.S. Coast Guard sent three icebreakers on a complete transit through the passage with partial Canadian icebreaker support, in a successful attempt to gauge whether ships could escape to the east when iced-in on the west.

Cold War operations, especially the creation of the DEW Line, played a unique role in Arctic shipping. Knowledge gained - from design modifications, crew competency, vessel maneuverability in ice, infrastructure and governance concerns – continues to be expanded upon.


The SS Manhattan became the first commercial ship to break through the NWP. Even though the Manhattan carried no cargo on the initial NWP voyage (the tanks were filled with water to simulate loading), the ship picked up a symbolic barrel of oil in Alaska, returning to New York a merchant hero. The voyage prompted passionate discussions in Canada about sovereignty, followed by the passage of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act (AWPPA). Information gleaned from the two Manhattan Arctic voyages - test trials in ice - proved extremely valuable to future icebreaking designs.

The discovery of a major new oil field on Alaska’s North Slope at Prudhoe Bay in the spring of 1968 signaled the start of a new era of oil transportation technology. Two of the three companies involved, ARCO and BP, intended to build a pipeline over Alaska’s Brooks Range to deliver the crude to an ice-free port in Valdez for tanker shipment south. But because of traditional tanker “flexibility credits” and the possibility of delivering crude direct to both U.S. west and east coasts, a small group in the third company, Humble Oil and Refining (now ExxonMobil) persuaded parent company Standard Oil of New Jersey, to make a study of icebreaking tankers.

In 1969, four shipyards, an international team of maritime experts and three major oil companies pitted their considerable technical, creative and financial resources together to attain the goal of taking a tanker through the infamous NWP. For this voyage the Manhattan had to undergo extensive refit to convert this merchant vessel into an icebreaking tanker. The conversion, lasting eight months (from December 1968 to August 1969) with work being split among four shipyards, cost $US28 million (the entire experiment, with two test voyages originally estimated at $US10-15 million, eventually ended up, 21 months later, costing $US58 million).

The Manhattan set sail in August of 1969 with 126 on board (45 crew members, journalists, U.S. politicians, Canadian parliamentarians, scientists, naval architects, marine engineers, etc.) for the 4,400-mile journey. Of key importance and significance were the escorting icebreakers accompanying the Manhattan, especially the Canadian icebreakers John A. MacDonald and later the Louis S. St. Laurent. In this voyage the Manhattan was successful as a large model test ship, as the vessel broke thicker ice than any ship in history.

In its second voyage the following April, the multi-year ice was so tough that the ship couldn’t enter the passage but went instead to Pond Inlet where further icebreaking tests were carried out. Following the two voyages, a model of the Manhattan was built and tested in Wartsilla’s new ice model basin in Finland. Built specifically to support the Manhattan voyage, the basin opened the door for ice technology exchange between Soviet and Finnish scientists, a lesser known part of the Manhattan legacy.

M/V Arctic

Within the same time period as Beaufort Sea activity, another important Arctic marine story, that of M/V Arctic, was taking place. The M/V Arctic was built in 1978 at a shipyard on the Great Lakes, and subsequently has a relatively narrow maximum allowable beam of 22.9 meters as required for passage through the Great Lakes lock system. Coupled with a required deadweight and draft limitation, this resulted in a 38,500 ton vessel having a rather high length to beam ratio of 9.2. This is far from ideal for an Arctic vessel, since it limits maneuverability in close ice. However, the ship is still a workhorse in the Canadian Arctic, more than 30 years later. The M/V Arctic’s operations have mostly been stand-alone, with no dedicated icebreaker support, as is the commercial Canadian Arctic marine tradition. The ship was upgraded extensively in 1986 with a new flat Melville bow and increased hull strength. The original geared diesel, deeply immersed, single ducted CPP propulsion system was unaltered. These modifications allowed M/V Arctic to extend its operating field and season. The ship serviced the Nanisivik and Polaris mines in the high Arctic for nearly 20 years until 2002, and then the Raglan mine in northern Quebec and Voisey’s Bay mine in Labrador. The ship also transported the first Arctic oil to market from Bent Horn on Cameron Island in 1985 and continued that operation until 1996.

Research and development has been constant through many projects over the years, and for three decades the ship has provided valuable ship performance data on vessel design, hull strength and trafficability. Of particular importance to future Arctic transportation, M/V Arctic has always been a test platform for the development of advanced ice navigation systems that have integrated the latest remote sensing technologies with bridge navigation equipment.

Northeast Passage

The quest for a new route to reach China and India from the Atlantic via north of the Russian coastline spanned more than five centuries, beginning in the 15th century with English, Dutch and Russian navigators sailing along the northern coast of Russia and far into the Arctic seas.

Early explorers of the area included Willem Barents and Olivier Brunel. Under the auspices of the Russian tsar Peter I the Great, Semyon Dezhnyov is likely to have sailed the region in 1648 and Vitus Bering is known to have sailed northward through the Bering Strait in 1728.

In Russia, the idea of a possible seaway connecting the Atlantic and the Pacific was first put forward by the diplomat Gerasimov in 1525. However, Russian settlers and traders on the coasts of the White Sea, the Pomors, had been exploring parts of the route as early as the 11th century. By the 17th century they established a continuous sea route from Arkhangelsk as far east as the mouth of Yenisei.

In 1648, the most famous expedition, led by Fedor Alekseev and Semyon Dezhnev, sailed east from the mouth of Kolyma to the Pacific and doubled the Chukchi Peninsula, thus proving that there was no land connection between Asia and North America.

Eighty years after Dezhnev, in 1725, another Russian explorer, Danish-born Vitus Bering on Sviatoy Gavriil made a similar voyage in reverse, starting in Kamchatka and going north to the strait that now bears his name. It was Bering who gave their current names to the Diomede Islands, discovered and first described by Dezhnev. Bering’s explorations in 1725–30 were part of a larger scheme initially devised by Peter the Great and known as the Great Northern (or Kamchatka) expedition. The Second Great Northern Expedition took place between 1735-42. The Northeast Passage (NEP) was not traversed by anyone until Baron Adolf Erik Nordenskjold of Sweden accomplished the feat in 1878-79 aboard the Vega.

Coupled with the ongoing search for a NEP, voyages using the Kara Sea route to Western Siberia played a pivotal role in Arctic marine transport. Two expeditions achieved transits of a substantial part of the NEP, including Fridjof Nansen’s Fram (1893-1896) and the Baron Eduard Toll expedition on board Zarya (1900-1903). Maud, commanded by Roald Amundsen (1918-1920), was the fourth ship to complete a transit of the NEP and, as a result, Amundsen achieved the distinction of being the first person to circumnavigate the Arctic Ocean, since he had now linked up with the track of his voyage in the Gjoa.

The first one-season transit route was not accomplished until 1934, when Glavsevmorput (Glavnoye Upravleniye Severnogo Morskogo Puti or GUSMP - Chief Administration of the NSR) mounted a successful attempt with the icebreaker Fedor Litke.

The Northern Sea Route

The Northern Sea Route, or NSR, stretching from the Kara Gate in the west to the Bering Strait in the east, was highly developed by the Soviet Union as an important national waterway, peaking in 1987 with 331 vessels on 1,306 voyages. The western end of the NSR (Kara Sea) has been maintained for year-round navigation since 1978-79 with ships sailing between Murmansk and Dudinka on a regular basis.

The history of commercial use of the NSR can be distinguished by four distinct stages: exploration and settlement (1917-1932); organization of regular navigation coupled with the development of fleet and ports (1932-early 1950s); transformation of the newly developed NSR into a regular operating transportation line during the summer-autumn periods (early 1950s-late 1970s); and finally, efforts to establish year-round shipping (late 1970s-present).

During the first stage, 1917-1932, the NSR was utilized for community re-supply, in addition to sporadic attempts at regional exploitation of resources such as furs, wood, fish, salt, coal, whaling and sealing. In 1932, a Soviet expedition led by Otto Yulievich Schmidt was the first to sail from Arkhangelsk to the Bering Strait in the same summer without wintering en route. The Northern Sea Route was officially open and exploitation began in 1935. Advanced Soviet navigational skills, technological capability and experience in ice navigation were unrivaled and traffic in the Arctic continued to grow. From 1917-1934 there were only two sinkings out of the 178 round-trip voyages across the Kara Sea to import finished goods to, and export timber from Igarka, along the Yenisei River in central Russia.

From 1932-1953, administration of the Russian Arctic marine activity rested with the Chief Administration of the Northern Sea Route (CANSR), a direct arm of the Council of Peoples Commissars of the Soviet Union, with its goal “to develop the NSR from the White Sea to the Bering Strait, to equip it, to keep it in good order, and to secure the safety of shipping along it.” Major additions were made to the Arctic fleet, which carried 100,000 to 300,000 tons of cargo annually and employed 40-150 ships per year.

In 1940, the German vessel Komet, an armed raider disguised as a merchant ship, was the first foreign ship in more than 20 years to be granted passage, and it was the last foreign transit for another 50 years. When the Soviet Union entered the war in 1941, the route became important for bringing Allied supplies into the country. In the four seasons of 1942-1945, 120 ships transported approximately 450,000 tons of relief supplies, which amounted to half the freight turnover for the NSR during this period.

In 1953 CANSR became a department under the Ministry of Merchant Marine in Moscow and for 17 years the infrastructure was improved to provide the capability for both summer and autumn shipping. In 1959, the Soviets launched the world’s first nuclear powered surface ship, the icebreaker Lenin, extremely significant as it expanded the range of travel in isolated regions.

After CANSR became the Administration of the Northern Sea Route (ANSR) in 1970, the emphasis became year-round trafficability. By the 1978-79 season, the western end of the NSR achieved year-round navigation with ships sailing between Murmansk and Dudinka on a regular basis. Other landmark voyages during this era of Russian Arctic marine transport history include the 1977 voyage of the Arktika to the geographic North Pole and the first complete high latitude passage by the surface vessel Sibir in 1978. By the mid-80s, the total volume of traffic passages through the NSR amounted to 6.6 million tons annually.

The NSR was formally opened to non-Russian vessels in the summer of 1991, only a few months before the Soviet Union was dissolved. Several developments have occurred during this modern period of Arctic marine transport history: the creation of the NSR Administration, the commissioning of the International Northern Sea Route Programme, the formation of the Noncommercial Partnership for the Cooperation of the Northern Sea Route Usages, leasing cargo space aboard Soviet SA-15 icebreaker cargo carriers, great strides in developing fleet and port infrastructure, and the establishment of year-round navigation in the western part of the Arctic.

The NSR is a substantially shorter passage (35-60 percent savings in distance) for shipping between northern European ports and those of the Far East and Alaska than routes through the Suez or Panama Canals. The ANSR, responsible for the overall planning, coordination and execution of organizational and regulatory activities for marine operations, is working to strengthen the competitiveness of the NSR. The Russian fleet of the world’s most powerful icebreaking ships and special ice-strengthened ships for moving most types of cargo, highly developed infrastructure along the NSR and specialized ice navigation skills demonstrate that navigation along the NSR is technically feasible and that there is a cargo base for import, export and conceivably transit.

Arctic Tourism

For most of European and American history, the many attempts to explore and occupy high latitudes were characterized by peril and tragedy. From 1576 onwards, numerous ventures into these cold, remote and icy places were conducted to obtain economic benefits and expand empires. All of the expeditions experienced hardships and many ships foundered and men perished in their attempts to penetrate these unknown seas and lands. By the 1800s, newspaper and book publications describing both the heroic and tragic aspects of polar exploits were immensely popular. Given these widely publicized descriptions of a bleak Arctic environment and the fatal demise of Arctic expeditions, it is remarkable that such a place would be attractive to tourists. But, in fact, tourists began visiting the Arctic in the early 1800s and their attraction to this unlikely destination has grown steadily for more than two centuries.

By the mid-1850s, the Industrial Revolution was far more than an economic phenomenon; it had transformed societies by creating personal wealth for greater numbers of people, increasing leisure time and improving public education. It introduced new technologies, especially transportation and communication, which facilitated convenient access to the remote parts of the world. One result of these transformations was the extraordinary expansion of tourism. The combination of widely distributed personal wealth, the invention of railroads and steamships with enormous passenger capacities and progressively affordable transport costs suddenly allowed thousands of people to travel for pleasure. By the late 1800s, tourism had become a viable leisure activity for the masses, rather than the indulgence of a privileged few.

By the late 1800s, steamship and railroad companies had achieved the capacity to transport large numbers of passengers. Given intense competition between those companies, travel costs were progressively lowered to attract customers and successfully compete. Simultaneously, companies aggressively expanded their transport networks to previously inaccessible regions, including the Arctic. All of those business decisions enabled more people to travel to more destinations.

In 1850, Arctic marine tourism by commercial steamship was initiated in Norway. By the 1880s, Arctic marine tourism was a booming business. Arctic destinations included Norway’s fjords and North Cape, transits to Spitsbergen, Alaska’s Glacier Bay and the gold rush sites as far north as Homer, riverboat cruises in the Canadian Yukon, and cruises to Greenland, Baffin Bay and Iceland. The tourist experience aboard the steamships was a mixture of exploration and luxury. Little known or recently discovered glaciers, bays, wildlife and indigenous communities attracted curious tourists led by Arctic explorers and naturalists. Shipboard life emphasized lavish meals, concerts provided by orchestras, beauty parlors and barbershops, photography studios and lectures presented within library settings. All of the 19th century Arctic destinations were commercially successful and cruise ship companies have continued to operate and expand their itineraries throughout those and other Arctic regions for more than a century. In addition, the combined themes of expedition and luxury cruising have also persisted to the present time.

 By 1900, Arctic tourism was a flourishing commercial activity. Its diversity included independent travelers pursuing a variety of adventurous recreation activities in marine and land environments, as well as groups touring natural, wildlife, historical and cultural attractions. All of these Arctic tourism activities were extensively promoted in guidebooks and the popular press. Companies specializing in guidebooks, such as John Murray and Baedeker, came into existence at this time. And travel literature encouraging mass travel regularly appeared in widely distributed periodicals such as Harper’s Weekly, The Century Magazine and the National Geographic Society Magazine. From the mid-1800s onward numerous editions of Arctic guidebooks would regale the splendors of the Land of the Midnight Sun.

The economic benefits of the Arctic tourism industry were immediately evident to both private companies and Arctic governments. Tourism provided jobs, personal income, revenues and financial capital for infrastructure. It also represented a new way to use the Arctic’s natural resources. It was a departure from the resource extraction and depletion industries such as hydraulic mining, rampant timber harvesting, and the exploitive commercial fishing and whaling practices of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

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

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