Marine Communications, Traffic Monitoring and Control in the Arctic

(from AMSA Report 2009)


The historical standard for communicating weather, wave and ice information to ships at sea is the radio facsimile broadcast. While its use is being eclipsed world-wide by digital communications, the analogue radio broadcast remains an important source of information in the Arctic. Radio stations in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Germany and the Russian Federation broadcast analysis and forecast charts for sea ice, icebergs, sea state and weather, as well as providing vessel traffic services and general marine communications.

Norway has established a very advanced system composed of Automatic Identification System (AIS) and Maritime Communications and Traffic Services along the Arctic coast. In January 2007, a Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) for the coast of northern Norway was established in Vardø, operated by the Norwegian Coastal Administration (NCA).

The service is designed to monitor and guide vessels, to promote safe and efficient navigation, and to protect the marine environment against undesired events in the Barents Sea and along the Norwegian coast. The area of operation for Vardø VTS Center is the Norwegian Economic Zone (NEZ) outside the baseline, the area around Svalbard and the area outside Tromsø and Finnmark in northern Norway. The VTS Center interacts with vessels, other government agencies, the NCA duty team that is responsible for national response and with the Norwegian SAR for search and rescue services. The administration also coordinates, on a daily basis, the tugboat preparedness in North Norway in conjunction with Regional Headquarters North-Norway (Norwegian Armed Forces) and the NCA duty team.

The United States marine communications infrastructure in Alaska is concentrated where vessels operate the most. There is excellent very high frequency (VHF) coverage throughout southeast Alaska and into portions of the Bering Sea north to St. Paul and the Bristol Bay area. North of this region there is local VHF coverage at Nome, Kotzebue and Barrow. Barrow and Kotzebue, both north of the Bering Strait, also have high frequency (HF) NOAA radios. Mariners in these areas can speak directly to a weather expert via HF radio. Outside of VHF marine coverage, the U.S. Coast Guard relies on high frequency or satellite communications.

Canada operates a seasonal system, while the Russian Federation is planning to augment their existing service during the next two years with further investment up to the 2020 timeframe.

The Danish Navy operates a year-round high frequency radio station on the southwest coast of Greenland and maintains the IMO mandatory ship reporting system, GREENPOS, for all ships on voyage to or from Greenland ports and places of call. Furthermore, Denmark maintains a number of stations with limited communications capabilities in the south/southeast and lower western half of Greenland.

Iceland has an advanced system of AIS along its coast with 23 base stations and repeaters with total coverage of the coastline. The maritime radio system has recently been renewed in VHF, MF (medium frequency) and HF bands and two new NAVTEX stations have been established. The traffic monitoring is carried out by the Maritime Traffic Service in Reykjavik operated by the Icelandic Coast Guard.

Communications using VHF, MF and HF as well as satellite are generally sufficient for the lower Arctic areas (Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin, southern Greenland waters and waters of the Northern Sea Route); however, once the high Arctic is reached, voice and data transmission become problematic.

Most modern ships are equipped with satellite digital communications equipment - not only for safety reasons but for the management and navigation of the ship. This equipment relies on geostationary INMARSAT satellites that do not provide service northward of about 80º N latitude. Other systems, such as the IRIDIUM constellation of 66 polar orbiting satellites, provide worldwide coverage including the Arctic. IRIDIUM is capable of providing a Ship Safety and Alerting System that meets IMO requirements but its data transfer rates are very low (less than 9.6 kb/s). 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 and often interrupted. Other regional systems such as the Mobile Satellite System (MSAT) offer limited voice and data transfer capability only in North America including the Canadian Arctic Archipelago.

Improvements in capacity and reductions in cost are necessary for IRIDIUM and other regional systems to become a practical, widespread solution for the Arctic not only for voice, but more importantly for data transmission. The Russian Federation has been using communication satellites in highly elliptical orbits that provide long residence time over the Arctic (“Molniya” orbits) for television and other communications needs for several decades and, in 2007, pledged to improve radio and telecommunications in the Arctic.

It should be noted that the Canadian government has initiated a “Polar Communications and Weather space mission for Canada’s North,” (PCW) which is planning to provide robust 24/7 two-way satellite communications capability to all of the Canadian north for rapid high rate data transmission and information products, as well as low-data rate communications capability and also near-real time meteorological information products about the north to users throughout Canada.

Norway is in dialogue with the United Kingdom, Denmark (Greenland), Faroe Islands and Iceland with regard to establishing a regional North Atlantic AIS/VTMIS (Vessel and Traffic Monitoring and Information System). The system is planned to be in force in 2009, and will facilitate the implementation of Article 9 of the Directive 2002/59 and the establishment of the SafeSeaNet Tracking Identification Relay and Exchange System (STIRES) as presented in the STIRES study (Saab AB, PM PM 374185). Satellites and aerial surveillance systems can improve monitoring capability and serve to improve compliance with state regulations such as those intended for pollution prevention, or traffic reporting schemes that consequently can help in protecting the environment. As shipping increases in the Arctic regions, the requirement for improved voice and data transmission coverage becomes paramount.


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