Reductions in snow cover and sea ice have increased Arctic shipping activities by governmental and commercial entities from the eight nations which claim Arctic territory.
Russia, Canada, Norway, the United States (Alaska), Denmark (Greenland), Sweden, Finland, and Iceland claim lands within the Arctic Circle. The actual territorial borders are in dispute in some cases. Most of these disputes concern the submerged land mass which extends from the sovereign nations coastline.
Submerged areas of the continental shelf are rich in resources. The process of extracting these resources, and the resulting assets and technologies developed during the extraction process will allow this Polar Region to become even more accessible. Increased open water will add new routes and ports to serve expanded Arctic shipping.
Environmental Effects on Arctic Shipping
Sea ice in Arctic Regions continues to decrease each year. Most climate models predict an absence of perennial sea ice by the year 2030.
Warming estimates differ, but it is generally agreed that most of the increased temperatures will be experienced in autumn and winter. Late summers will be ice free within approximately two decades.
The Institute of the North offers additional information on arctic shipping and climate change.
Destination shipping to and from the Arctic has increased as resource extraction businesses have grown. Occasional passages are made through the Arctic using vessels built for ice duty or escorted by ice breakers, but regular transits still face many serious obstacles.
Some of the technologies developed for destination shipping can be adapted to transit duties. Nuclear powered ice breakers and ice rated cargo vessels are used by Russia to transport resources during the summer months. Ice breakers are useful for clearing one year ice which is about three feet thick. Ice which builds up over several years may be ten feet thick and is impassable to even the largest ice breaking ships.
Loose ice is actually more of a problem than ice sheets. The term â€œice freeâ€ refers to an area being free of sheet ice or ice cover, though there will be loose ice pieces of various sizes. Ice chunks are subject to winds and currents and can pack into areas to a great depth. Some ships will be unable to pass these ice jams and could potentially become trapped by the moving ice.
Many parts of the Arctic consist of many small islands or narrow passageways. These areas are prone to ice jams not only because of their constriction horizontally, but also vertically. Shallow drafts can be found in many of the passages. This will not eliminate all ship traffic but may limit loads and size of vessels. Unfortunately larger and more heavily built ships that are more appropriate for use in the Arctic but may be limited by draft.
Dense fog is abundant during the summer months when shipping is most likely to take place and can make visual navigation very difficult. Snow may still cover some land areas during active shipping times. The lack of visual contrast between fog and snow cover is another difficulty for the pilot.
Global Positioning and radar navigation is practical for identifying routes and avoiding high profile objects like land. Heavy concentrations of ice chunks or ice jams can only be identified visually at this time. Ice survey aircraft and satellites are options but both are expensive solutions for a small amount of traffic.
Floating markers are not practical in ice prone areas. Markers can be repositioned by shifting ice sheets or snagged by ice jams and pulled out of position. In some areas navigation markers can be removed during the worst conditions but some areas are never fully free of floating ice. The danger and expense of operating a buoy tender in fringe seasons must be weighed with the amount of traffic transiting the area.
There are few aids to navigation on land in the Arctic. With increased traffic some navigational aids will be built. Self powered beacons can be placed in some areas if they are designed for harsh off season conditions and the changing ecosystem in which they will exist. With the warming temperatures permafrost and ice impregnated rock will thaw and become unstable. Locations for navigational aids on land must be of use to the mariner but also stand on stable ground.
Arctic Leisure Shipping
Leisure vessels operating in the Arctic have the same concerns as a commercial vessel. Some cruise ships have made Arctic transits, and destination cruises are commonplace.
Cruise operators in the region have the luxury of changing their route or serving a more accessible location if conditions become dangerous. The demands of a sightseeing trip are less demanding than a scheduled cargo route. Liability alone keeps many ships out of dangerous areas.
In cases of entrapment or mechanical failure passengers must be transferred to another vessel. Cruise ships in these areas may need to travel in pairs since there are few rescue resources available in the area. The logistics of passenger transfer are problematic because of the entrapment or grounding of a vessel may not allow for a second ship to take up a rescue position for ship to ship cable transfers. Hardened tenders are one solution but small craft will not be able to enter heavy ice jams.
Lifeboat design is another consideration for Arctic travel. Enclosed life boats are considered best practice for extreme conditions. This is a significant expense for an operator who is refitting equipment for Arctic cruising. American legislators have already begun considering safety regulations for cruise ships in these areas.
The unspoiled natural beauty of the far north is a major factor in the popularity of the â€œgreenâ€ cruising movement. The isolation and limited traffic draw visitors to these experiences, and as new areas become passable there will be the inevitable rush to be the first tourists into a region. The popularity of the Arctic as a cruising destination will only increase as the media focuses on the changing environment and the disappearance of what we think of as the Arctic landscape.