Shipping in the Arctic: Promise, Preparations, and Impacts

This panel presentation focused on the expected increase in shipping in the Arctic, and associated challenges, such as:

  • Noise and sonar
  • Collisions
  • Invasive species introduction
  • Pollution – including conventional air pollutants in an unspoiled environment and black carbon, which can accelerate warming by reducing sunlight reflectivity
  • Conflicts with Native communities – through noise that drives subsistence fish further from shores and damage from ship wakes

The panelists were:

  • Lawson Brigham, Distinguished Professor of Geography and Arctic Policy, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Member of the Arctic Security Working Group, The Hoover Institution
  • Jeremy Goldbogen, Assistant Professor of Biology, Hopkins Marine Station, Stanford University
  • Alan J. Krupnick, Senior Fellow and Co-Director, RFF Center for Energy and Climate Economics
  • The Honorable Denise Michels, Mayor, City of Nome, Alaska
  • Captain Scott Smith, Chief, Office of Navigation Systems, United States Coast Guard

The main questions the panel addressed were:

  • What is known about the impacts of shipping on the marine environment?
  • How might these impacts be different in a changing Arctic environment?
  • How can these impacts be best mitigated?

Goldbogen discussed current research along the California coast, the baseline biology of migrating whales, and the impacts from ship interaction.

Whales are submerged 95 percent of the time, so archival tags with fine-scale movement sensors called accelerometers are used to continuously monitor and quantify the orientation of whales relative to gravity when they are in the water.

The ecological context of their deep foraging dives is to find food, specifically, the dense krill patches that provide high energetic efficiencies. The krill patches are near the coastlines, meaning whales have a higher probability of being impacted by ships.

A behavioral response study was also conducted on how whales would be impacted by high frequency sound. When whales hear noise from ships, they cease their calling behavior.

Goldbogen concluded by describing the potential physical interaction between whales and ships. Given the timing of their response dives, whales have a limited capacity to avoid approaching ships.

Brigham discussed freshwater as a global commodity. The Arctic has plenty of freshwater and ships are the best way to transport it to where it’s needed.

The Russian and Eurasian side of the Arctic offers the most open Arctic shipping pathways.

Only 236 vessel transits of vessels have occurred through the Northwest Passage, so that route is unlikely to be viable any time soon. Into the mid-century, the most potential for top of the world trans-Arctic shipping will be for a limited amount of time during the summers.

The Alaskan Arctic sees mainly barge traffic, which is seasonal and correlated with the seasonal advance and retreat of the ice cover.

The real issue in the Arctic is the lack of infrastructure. Only Norway, Iceland and Russia have coastal Arctic infrastructure. Within Alaska, Nome has the only infrastructure, and it is not built to a level where it can connect to the global maritime world.

The Polar Code—applicable to large ships of 500 tons or more—covers a lot of subjects such as ship safety equipment, trade expertise, and MARPOL (marine pollution control) oil spill annexes. The subjects it doesn’t cover as well are black carbon, emission controls, and fishing vessel operations. Those issues may be addressed in the future, but at present the code is a baseline document with a seminal historic framework. The main interest is that it has uniform application in all Arctic states.

Michels, former mayor of the city of Nome, said she would like to have roads built that connect more communities in her rural Alaska region. Currently, air transport is main way to travel, and it is dependent on decent weather. Barges bring freight and supplies from late May to late October.

Michels offered other information items during her presentation:

  • Under the Marine Mammals Protection Act, only Alaska Natives are allowed to take marine mammals for subsistence.
  • Climate change is noticeable through more 20-year storm events and increased erosion. Storm damage is now more expensive to repair.
  • Gold continues to be mined in the state waters off of Nome in both summer and winter. After over a century of mining, Michels said it’s interesting that more gold continues to be found.
  • Nome’s port facilities now receive destination traffic and foreign vessels, though the waters remain too shallow for some vessels.
  • Now that Shell has pulled out, offshore assets are gone. New infrastructure is still needed, however, and Nome looks forward to working with congressional delegation and the Army Corps to develop this.
  • A gap has been identified in the U.S. Arctic policy in regard to deep water ports. While the policy calls for port development, it also requires a cost/benefit ratio analysis, which identifies the current port at -28 when, by definition, a deep water port is at least -45.
  • “We continue to be at the table for the discussions, because the decisions that are made in DC reflect directly on those that live there,” Michels said.


Capt. Smith discussed the Coast Guard’s Arctic Strategy, released in May 2013, to ensure safe, secure, and environmentally responsible maritime activity in the Arctic. Of the 13 initiatives in the strategy, Capt. Smith concentrated on the one aimed at promoting waterway management.

Increased vessel traffic in unpredictable and hazardous waters will require 24/7 water management and the use of hydrographic information, risk analysis and routing measures, and safety information. Capt. Smith said that USCG must strive to provide tools that will enhance maritime situational awareness.

The USCGC Healy is participating in a project to collect about 1,000 linear nautical miles of data. Although the Healy’s primary mission is not focused on hydrography, it will coordinate with NOAA to acquire depths and traffic lines while transiting other areas of the Arctic.

USCG has a layered system approach for looking into the navigational risks into waterways, consisting of:

  • Port Access Route Studies (PARS), where USCG studies potential traffic density and assess the need for vessel safe access routes.
  • PAWSA, a formal workshop that brings together local experts to analyze specific port risk. The goal is to use stakeholders to identify risks and develop mitigation options that can be put into place to further reduce risk or meet new concerns and changing conditions.
  • Waterway Analysis and Management Study (WAMS), a continuing reevaluation of current navigation systems in order to keep up with changes in ship traffic and infrastructure development.

USCG opened a six-month comment period on PARS on December 5, 2014. The Coast Guard conducted this study in part to determine the ways in which commercial vessel traffic through the Arctic could be made safer, assuming an increase in Arctic transits. Based on comments received in 2010, USCG developed a potential Arctic routing system, consisting of a series of four nautical miles. The proposed routing measure is voluntary for all vessels and fishing vessels. The route closely mirrors current traffic patterns. If Bering Strait vessel traffic increases, the proposed route will minimize disruptions and increase safety for waterway users.

Waterway managers are now evaluating the comments that were submitted.

The stated purpose of the Arctic waterway safety committee is to bring together local marine interests to develop the Alaskan Arctic in a single forum, to act collectively on behalf of those interests, and to develop practices to ensure a safe, efficient and predictable operating environment for all current and future waterway users.

Future navigational initiatives are being developed in concert with other agencies and other waterway stakeholders. Currently, mariners receive safety information by downloading documents and looking through 65-100 pages of text to find the information that’s needed.

Under development is an interactive web-based, web pull and push marine safety information system that will allow equipment managers to form integrated navigation systems on ships, and to pull back and grab information reports for specific vessel transits. It will also enable people to go online to read safety information for specific areas and it will push the time sensitive marine safety information over vessel Automatic Identification Systems (AIS).

Capt. Smith said the federal AIS has not been installed in Alaska so the Coast Guard relies on a third party partnership with the Alaska Marine Exchange to receive information and cooperate on research and development for transmitting AIS data in the region.

The Coast Guard is also involved with the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Marine Environment (PAME) working group and the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA) report recommendation 3B, which supports the continued development of comprehensive Arctic marine traffic awareness for improved monitoring and tracking of marine activity.

Summary of Panelist Questions and Answers:

Q: What is the timeline for the increased shipping to occur and what would drive that timeline? Would it be the rate of ice melt, deep water port development, or investment in other activities?

A: It would be the price of oil. More tankers would transit the Arctic if the price of oil was higher. This question can’t be addressed without having oil in the picture. For instance, in Russia the Yamal LNG project is being developed where some of the largest vessels in the world are being escorted through ice by nuclear icebreakers. Globally, oil is still a factor. The rise of adventure tourism is another factor. Projections and forecasts are extraordinarily difficult because one starts with global commodities and works down to a transport line. All numbers are guesses correlated with sea ice retreat.

Q: What is the situation with black carbon?

A: Black carbon from ships is being addressed by the International Maritime Organization. While it is an issue with ship traffic, black carbon is even more of an issue with industrial factories in the Arctic.

Q: The Shell vessels could have offered assistance in case of emergencies. Could private industry provide infrastructure, or is that the responsibility of USCG and the Corps of Engineers?

A: People in Washington D.C. misunderstand who has the responsibility to build icebreakers. Many people believe that a northern sea route will be created as an Arctic waterway around the coast of Alaska. USCG is responsible for securing national security. A global response is required for emergencies in the Arctic. The possibility of cooperation between the Arctic nations’ coast guards is strong. The second meeting of the Arctic coast guard forum will be held this fall and all eight Arctic nations might participate.

Q: Why is a new icebreaker not yet a priority and what will be required to convince the U.S. government to build an icebreaker that it fully owns, instead of having a public-private partnership vessel?

A: Actual vessel travel in the Arctic will dictate the need.

Q: How urgent is the need for Nome to develop deep draft port capability if USCG is going to respond to emergencies in the Arctic?

A: We need to address the gap in U.S. policy regarding the deep port in Nome. The Army Corps of Engineers cost/benefit ratio analysis said -28 m. We must continue to find ways to create public-private partnerships for different opportunities.