Major Arctic Marine Transport Programs, Studies and Workshops

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Previous Arctic marine transport studies, workshops and reports contain a wealth of findings, recommendations and research agendas of significant importance to the AMSA and to any policy and regulatory framework for the future. Broad Arctic navigation studies, such as the 1993-1999 International Northern Sea Route Programme (INSROP), the 2001-2005 Arctic Operational Platform (ARCOP) and the 2002-2005 Japan Northern Sea Route-Geographic Information System (JANSROP-GIS) form a knowledge base on Arctic navigation in addition to localized findings such as the Alaskan trafficability studies. A summary of the 2004 Cambridge Workshop provides an intellectual synthesis of Arctic marine transport.

International Northern Sea Route Programme

The International Northern Sea Route Programme was the most comprehensive marine transport study ever undertaken prior to the AMSA, with the aim to create a research-based knowledge bank of commercial, international shipping on Russia’s Northern Sea Route across the top of Eurasia in the Arctic Ocean.

The program was led and coordinated by three principal partners: the Ship and Ocean Foundation (SOF) of Tokyo, Japan; the Central Marine Research and Design Institute (CNIIMF) of St. Petersburg, Russia; and the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI) in Oslo, Norway. The numbers involved are impressive: 468 researchers and experts from more than 100 institutions in 14 countries; 104 projects; an experimental voyage through the NSR; two large international conferences. This work produced 167 peer reviewed working papers and a large number of articles and books governing almost every relevant aspect of shipping on the NSR. Funding was provided by the Nippon Foundation, Ship and Ocean Foundation, both from Japan, as well as various Norwegian sponsors and the Soviet Union.

It was acknowledged that the international shipping industry would need information and analysis before committing investments or vessels to the previously unknown route. On the initiative of the Soviet Ministry of Merchant Marine, contact was made with FNI to create an international research project, with St. Petersburg-based CNIIMF coordinating on the Soviet side. A pilot study was produced in 1990-1991. In 1992, SOF joined the partnership, and in May 1993 the three organizations signed an agreement establishing a secretariat at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute in Norway to coordinate the effort.

INSROP was designed as a multi-national, five-year effort, to be executed in two phases with a review conducted after three years. Four sub-programs were identified: 1) Natural conditions and ice navigation; 2) Environmental aspects; 3) Trade and commercial shipping factors; and 4) Political, legal and strategic aspects. In August 1995, a successful experimental transit voyage was conducted from Yokohama, Japan to Kirkenes, Norway onboard the Russian ice-strengthened carrier Kandalaksha, demonstrating the NSR’s technical feasibility.

In 1999, final findings of INSROP were presented at an NSR user conference in Oslo, Norway, bringing to a close the massive research project. It took years of diplomatic networking, negotiations and lobbying to shape the program and to obtain funding. It was often difficult to bridge language and cultural gaps between the three principal partners – the Japanese, the Norwegians and the Russians – who often maintained different priorities and varying business practices.

INSROP demonstrated that navigation along the NSR was technically feasible, with a cargo base for export, import and conceivably transit. INSROP also noted challenges to overcome. INSROP did not include research on climate change and how ice conditions might eventually enable large scale shipping.

A wealth of new and unique knowledge on the Russian Arctic was produced and made available to the international community. INSROP also pioneered cooperation between Russian and foreign researchers in Arctic-related fields, and created a platform for further Arctic multidisciplinary studies.

U.S. Trafficability Studies of 1979-86

With the advent of offshore oil and gas leases in the 1970s, studies were required to assess the feasibility of year-round marine transportation in ice-covered waters of the Alaska Arctic, yet no amount of analytical modeling or studies without actual field data could provide the information and insight needed. Therefore, the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) embarked on a multi-year program (1979-1986) to:

  1. Demonstrate the operational feasibility of commercial icebreaking ships along possible future Arctic routes;
  2. Define environmental conditions along routes in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas;
  3. Obtain data to improve design criteria for ice-capable ships and offshore structures.

To assess the feasibility of commercial icebreaking ships along possible future Arctic routes, two U.S. Coast Guard Polar Class icebreakers, the Polar Star and Polar Sea, the world’s most powerful non-nuclear icebreakers and the only U.S. ships capable of midwinter Arctic operations, were utilized as data collection platforms. During the eight-year research program, 15 icebreaker deployments occurred aboard the icebreakers and 14 of those were in the Alaska Arctic. General ship performance of trafficability data was continuously collected and summarized in 30-minute increments whenever the icebreakers changed locations.

Two dedicated transits (1981, 1983) from the south Bering Sea to the north Chukchi Sea were designed to simulate, as best as possible, a non-stop transit from the ice edge to northern Alaska. These voyages indicated that routing in the future could be around both ends of St. Lawrence Island and refuted the views of some experts that transit through the Bering Strait was not feasible in winter.

Thousands of ice thickness measurements were made, resulting in the formulation of a representative set of ice conditions for an Alaska route; supplemented with tables that offer suggestions on changes to reflect mild and severe ice conditions and possible voyage delays due to pressured ice conditions. In addition, zones of ice severity for the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas were developed to provide designers and operators with a strategic perspective on year-round Arctic marine transportation systems.

Several major projects were performed onboard the icebreakers to aid in the development of advanced icebreaking hull forms and Arctic commercial vessels capable of year-round operations. The resulting analysis from eight years of data collection made a significant contribution to the knowledge of ice loads and the structural design of all icebreaking ships.

With 15 voyages of data, the U.S. Arctic Marine Transportation Program of 1979-86 was one of the most extensive field tests of icebreakers in history and has provided a valuable knowledge base for future considerations and a model for future cross-border research initiatives. Briefly, key findings from the operational, environmental and technical data can be summarized as follows:

• Field data can provide the at-sea ground truthing of ship modeling/ studies, which may help to reduce the perceived risks of year-round marine transportation in the Arctic.

• The offshore Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas are extremely dynamic and ship icebreaking activities must be able to cope with the ever-changing ice environment. The most critical elements for successful ice navigation are crew skills and applied technology.

Arctic Marine Transport Workshop: Cambridge University

Amid growing interest and concern over the rapid climate changes occurring in the Arctic, experts in Arctic marine transport and international marine safety, as well as researchers of sea ice and climate change, met at the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge University in October 2004 to create a research agenda and identify critical issues related to the future of Arctic shipping.

Co-sponsored by the Institute of the North, the United States Arctic Research Commission and the International Arctic Science Committee, the international gathering included 54 maritime experts and representatives from 11 countries (United States, Canada, Russian Federation, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, Finland, Germany and Japan).

The three-day workshop provided the opportunity to study the extraordinary retreat of Arctic sea ice and what that means to the Arctic Ocean as a potential waterway for marine operations. While each area of discussion produced suggested topics for scientific research and questions on policy issues that were incorporated in the conference report, a few crosscutting conclusions emerged:

  1. An inter-disciplinary research agenda needs to include economic analysis, assessments, Law of the Sea, indigenous Arctic communities, core issues of conflict, marine safety and environmental protection, and climate change impacts on future marine access.
  2. The magnitude of sea ice variability creates difficult challenges for Arctic marine transport planning and adequate risk assessment.
  3. Arctic marine charts and aids to navigation need to be updated and airborne ice information enhanced with satellite coverage.
  4. Two key factors are needed to expand and develop the use of the Arctic Ocean as a shipping corridor: route reliability and security. Increased Arctic shipping will require an increase in the monitoring and enforcement of national and international laws governing ship security.
  5. Multiple economic drivers could fuel expanded use of Arctic marine transportation. Incremental expansion would result in an incremental growth in regional traffic. However, a decision by world shippers to use the Arctic Ocean as an alternate route would require large scale global investments of escort vessels, aids to navigation and staging ports to transfer cargo between ice-strengthened and non-ice-strengthened ships.

The workshop identified that the retreat of Arctic sea ice may lead to several plausible futures for the Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage and central Arctic Ocean, requiring further research, planning and cooperation, as well as consideration of future development of transshipment and port infrastructure.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

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

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