The Human Dimensions in Arctic Shipping

(from AMSA Report 2009)


Human dimensions refer to the interrelationships of people and the environment, particularly with respect to environmental change. Often, human dimensions concern broad issues such as government policies or institutional responses to change. In the Arctic, human dimensions research has typically looked at local or regional cases. For marine shipping in the Arctic, both the broad and the local approaches are important to consider. Shipping will occur across the entire region, requiring national and international policies to provide effective management and regulation. Because trans Arctic shipping will be driven largely by global economic factors, as will more local shipping for resource development, the role of institutions such as shipping companies, regulatory agencies and local or regional organizations who may be affected will all be pertinent.

This chapter addresses primarily the local aspects of human dimensions of Arctic marine shipping with a particular focus on indigenous communities and traditional activities in the marine environment. Arctic marine shipping will occur in the context of many other changes affecting Arctic residents. Climate change, which will make the Arctic more accessible to marine shipping, will affect most aspects of the lives of Arctic residents, from traditional livelihoods to infrastructure to the spread of disease. Social and economic change will come from national and global trends in trade and communication. Impacts to the environment and society are most likely to stem from the interactions of human and environmental change, particularly as human choices influence the trajectories of change. In this context, shipping may play a significant role not only on its own, but also, and perhaps even more likely, through combining with other drivers of change.

Arctic marine shipping involves several distinct activities, each with different interactions with local residents and thus different implications and likely impacts. Trans-Arctic shipping of cargo, using the Arctic merely as a corridor between distant ports, has some potential for environmental impact, depending on cargo carried and volume, and thus for affecting local societies that depend on a healthy marine environment. The infrastructure required to support such shipping may include port facilities, search and rescue or emergency response capability, and mechanisms of governance or enforcement, which may include military presence to preserve sovereign claims over certain waters. Such facilities may provide employment and other economic opportunity for local communities, but could also lead to social disruption if many people move to small communities to take new jobs. Local shipping, to and from Arctic ports, is likely to have more direct influence on communities. Indeed, local shipping today provides for substantial shipments of cargo and fuel to remote communities, allowing for a higher standard of living and lower prices than would be possible by air or land shipment alone. Longer shipping seasons could reduce prices further, or allow greater access by visitors.

Another form of local shipping is that in support of resource development in the Arctic. Supplying mines, oil and gas installations, and other development sites, and transporting the materials that are produced there, is the dominant form of marine shipping in the region today. While it is not clear whether reduced sea ice will have a major influence on development trends, increased shipping is unlikely to constrain development. If indeed development increases, it will have far-reaching economic consequences for the regions in which it occurs, and will likely have environmental impacts as well.

In addition to mineral and petroleum extraction, fishing in Arctic waters is likely to increase as a result of greater access to ice-free waters. In Greenland in particular, the development of a shrimp fishery has had major impacts on coastal communities and indeed on the national economy, as shrimp constitute a major export from Greenland. In Alaska, participation in commercial fisheries has substantial social and economic impacts on communities, implying that increased involvement in fisheries by more northern communities could have major impacts both positive and negative.

One non-extractive industry likely to benefit from increased shipping access is tourism. For local communities, tourism can be a source of revenue but also a disruption, both from direct (though likely inadvertent) interference with traditional and other activities, and also from greater attention to some local practices that may not conform with the values or expectations of non-Arctic societies. The presence of large cruise ships and their visits to communities that may have a fraction of the population of the ship itself cannot be ignored. An emergency involving such a ship could easily overwhelm local response capacity. Tourism, like fishing but unlike other forms of shipping, is likely to be focused on some of the same living resources (seabird colonies, marine mammals) that sustain local communities, thus increasing the potential for disruption and conflict.

The local human dimensions of Arctic marine shipping appear to be extensive, but there have been relatively few studies that have considered the implications either of current shipping activities or projections of what is likely to occur in the next few decades. The AMSA’s description of human dimensions of Arctic marine shipping is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, but is intended to demonstrate how and why marine shipping matters to Arctic communities and to consider what additional work is needed to be able to prevent, mitigate, or otherwise manage shipping to reduce negative impacts and maximize potential positive benefits.

In recent decades and today, Arctic coastal people travel far on sea ice and water, both along coastlines and also out to sea. A comprehensive, up-to-date catalog of indigenous use of the Arctic marine environment does not exist. Compilations of data from Canada and Alaska are two to three decades old. Some more recent studies have examined use patterns near individual communities, but even these are few and dispersed. It is thus impossible to present an overall map or description for the entire Arctic. This section provides instead a few examples of various uses of the Arctic marine environment and resulting interactions with marine shipping activities in different forms. These examples are intended to illustrate some of the range of potential interactions and effects.

Arctic marine shipping is one of many factors affecting, or with the potential to affect, the lives of Arctic residents. Predicting exactly how various developments in shipping will affect Arctic communities is difficult at best. For example, there is insufficient information to describe current local human uses of the Arctic marine environment adequately enough to assess the range of likely effects of marine shipping, and researchers cannot anticipate all potential information needs when conducting studies in advance. Rather, findings of the kind presented in this section can be used to identify areas of potential conflict or interaction between local uses and marine shipping, but further studies should be done of specific areas where shipping activities are planned, in which the details of shipping and current local uses can be compared and evaluated for potential impacts and mitigation strategies.

In the face of uncertainty about what activities will take place, what effects those activities will have and what other factors will be involved, a collaborative management approach and careful planning are required to identify and respond to negative impacts and to identify and harness positive benefits. One hallmark of the collaborative approach is that it is adaptive in the sense that it allows for adjustments and alterations based on experience and evaluation as changes take place, rather than creating a fixed system for addressing anticipated issues that may turn out to be ineffective when unanticipated events occur.

An advantage of substantive local involvement is that local residents are often best positioned to weigh the many factors affecting them. The example of the container that washed ashore in the Commander Islands describes the consequences when local capacity for addressing a problem is lacking, a situation exacerbated in that case by the lack of any larger precedent or system for response or accountability. In cases where local involvement in planning or carrying out shipping-related activities was higher, communities generally experienced better results.

One component of local involvement is communication. Many of the participants in the AMSA town hall meetings asked for better information about cruise visits and trans-Arctic shipping plans. Effective communication and continued interaction has been found to be important in oil and gas activities and in tourism in the Arctic. Communication can help reduce the number of surprises for all involved, and early identification of problems can allow more time for resolution.

As noted earlier, projection of shipping activities and their impacts is difficult due to the interactions of numerous factors in the environment and in human society. To some extent, researchers need to develop better methods for studying combined effects of these kinds, just as regulators need to develop better methods for balancing multiple management objectives. Just as importantly, those involved in marine shipping in any capacity need to recognize that flexibility and adaptiveness will be required to recognize and address challenges, problems and opportunities that arise.

Marine shipping encompasses a wide range of activities, taking place in different locations and seasons and with differing degrees of local involvement and effects. The quantity of shipping, likewise, may determine whether effects are largely beneficial or otherwise, and also who is most affected. For example, limited tourist traffic may provide a modest economic opportunity for local artists and handicraft makers, whereas higher levels of traffic may have environmental or other impacts that offset any benefits. As noted earlier, the details of effects will depend greatly on the details of shipping and the characteristics of specific times and places. Nonetheless, the case studies in this section and studies of other types of activities, such as mineral and petroleum development, suggest some observations about what can be expected from increases in Arctic marine shipping.

First, the impacts of shipping depend greatly on the type of shipping, the season(s) in which it occurs and the locations. Trans- Arctic shipping done in ice-free conditions and largely offshore may have few or no local effects, barring an accident. Nonetheless, as the Aleutian region has experienced, accidents can and should be expected, prepared for and responded to promptly and effectively. This is especially true in narrow waterways of the Arctic. In these places, ships must travel close to land and may well encounter local hunters or travelers out in boats. In addition, proximity to communities means proximity to hunting areas and the animals that people depend upon, so the potential for environmental impacts is correspondingly higher in these areas. Tourism, too, is likely to take place largely or exclusively in the ice-free season (with the exception of icebreaker voyages to the North Pole), though cruise ships are likely to visit communities or areas of high biological activity such as bird colonies or marine mammal haul-outs.

Shipping to and from destinations within the Arctic is also largely done during the ice-free season, with important exceptions in the Russian Arctic as well as occasional icebreaker transits throughout the region. Ice-breaking can interfere with over-ice travel by hunters and others and so is potentially a more significant impact than are open-water transits. Icebreaker activity may increase as mineral and petroleum resources are developed in the region, which might make interactions with local travelers more common. Here, too, the potential for environmental impacts is high, both from accidents and from destruction to key habitats such as areas where seals or polar bears make ice dens for bearing young. As with trans-Arctic shipping, the potential for local impacts is greatest near shore, particularly in narrow passages and straits.

Effects, too, come in several forms. Economically, more shipping may increase trade or lower costs for Arctic communities, while increased resource development can provide employment and income for Arctic residents and regions. As has been noted with regard to oil and gas activities in the Arctic, economic benefits may be considerable and can have a number of secondary effects, such as increased local capacity to provide social, cultural and health services as well as construct and maintain infrastructure.

Socially, increased economic activity and resource development can, but does not necessarily, lead to population growth through immigration, which can create social tension between newcomers and indigenous or other long-time residents. Often, those moving to the Arctic for employment are young men, creating a gender imbalance in the local population, which can exacerbate tensions and social problems. Changes in income, too, are often associated with increases in drug and alcohol abuse, as well as domestic violence and other crime. Many of these negative impacts can be addressed largely or in part, by establishing rotational work schedules, with workers traveling to the region for work shifts of one to several weeks and returning to their home communities during the periods they are off or by physical separation between a community and a development site.

Environmental effects are often the greatest concern from increased industrial activity of any kind, whether resource development or shipping. The environmental effects of Arctic marine shipping are addressed in other sections of this assessment, but it is important to note that loss of hunting opportunities and degradation of the environment can have substantial impacts on local communities. Concern about these types of impacts can by itself cause stress, especially when hunting and other traditional activities are seen as pillars of cultural continuity but also under threat from other social and environmental changes.

The cultural effects of shipping and development may, therefore, be generally anticipated to be negative, but this is not necessarily the case. Environmental impacts and greater assimilation from exposure to outside influences can cause cultural loss, but tourism can boost local cultural awareness and pride and greater economic well-being can allow investments in cultural programs.

As noted earlier, the difference between negative impacts and positive or neutral ones is often a question of planning and preparation. A large influx of cash into a community can create a boom-and bust atmosphere, with minimal investment for the long-term and a host of social problems in the short-term. The same economic boom can also be harnessed to produce lasting benefits. Doing so successfully requires extensive local involvement in the planning process, so that local concerns and ideas can be fully incorporated. Not all marine shipping activities will be beneficial for Arctic residents, and some are likely to have negative impacts. Nonetheless, careful attention to good communication and collaborative approaches to management can help keep increases in shipping activity from causing undue stress and harm to Arctic people and may result in benefits to many areas. 


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

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