written by Eleonora Milazzo – ACCEL European Fellow

The latest Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Progress Report showed a steady expansion of shipping.[1] Shipping in the Arctic largely depends on seasonal weather conditions. With the summer ice expected to contract for longer periods during the summer months, costs of shipping will decrease and vessel traffic will increase, following the development of resource extraction and new fishing opportunities.

Photo Credit: Arctic Ocean, September 2009: The US Geological Survey (Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard)
Photo Credit: Arctic Ocean, September 2009: The US Geological Survey (Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard)


What? Where?

According to AMSA estimates, there are around 6,000 individual vessels making multiple voyages in the Arctic region every year, half of these operating along the Great Circle Route in the North Pacific, crossing the Aleutian Islands.[2] Of these, approximately 1,600 are fishing vessels. Nearly all Arctic shipping is destinational and conducted for community re-supply, tourism, and natural resource transportation. Shipping activities are concentrated along the coasts of northwest Russia, and in the ice-free waters off Norway, Greenland, Iceland, and in Alaska. As of today, transit shipping remains relatively small in the Arctic compared to volumes passing through, for example, the Suez Canal[3].

Melting sea ice is set to open up new shipping possibilities in the future. The Northern Sea Route (NSR), also known as the North East Passage, as well as the North West Passage (NWP), are the most widely debated and, potentially, game-changing trans-polar shipping routes. As noted, they are not coastal sea-lanes but, rather, transportation corridors. Ships navigating these passages have to follow the channels which offer the best navigation conditions.[4]

  • The Northern Sea Route has always been regarded as a vital shortcut connecting Europe and Asia. It is officially defined as the web of routes stretching along the Russian coast from Novaya Zemlya to the Bering Strait. Russia currently charges fees to international vessels navigating through the NSR and claims full sovereignty over it. This claim is opposed by other nations, such as the U.S., who define the passage as an international strait where international shipping is allowed in accordance with the principle of transit passage. As an intercontinental transit route, the NSR could cut costs and distances by as much as 50% compared to using the Suez or Panama canals. Yet, sea ice represents an insurmountable obstacle for trans-polar shipping through the NSR. Even in a scenario of expanded navigability in summer, other factors may undermine the development of transit shipping, including poor services and infrastructures, high insurance and escort fees, competitive response by the Suez and Panama canals, poor charts and outdated information.[5]
  • The North West Passage is a set of routes between the Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, encompassing the Canadian Archipelago, the Davis Strait the Baffin Bay in the east, and the Beaufort Sea.[6] Similarly to the case of the NSR, Canada claims full sovereign rights over the NWP, while others define it as an international strait. Sea ice conditions in the NWP are, however, harsh and unpredictable, and as a result it is believed that there will be limited future interest in using this passage. Many experts believe that even if the Canadian archipelago were free of ice, it would be so full of icebergs that navigation would be even more dangerous there than in ice-covered waters.[7]



The Xue Long, a Chinese icebreaker. Photo credit: Xinhua
The Xue Long, a Chinese icebreaker. Photo credit: Xinhua

Shipping is regulated universally by the UNCLOS. Framework provisions include coastal and flag state rights and obligations, transit regulations, and vessel-source pollution regulation. Provisions regarding Arctic maritime shipping are provided by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). In 2009, the IMO approved the guidelines for ships operating in polar waters, expanding upon previous Arctic shipping guidelines adopted in 2002. Under the auspices of the IMO, states further negotiated agreements regulating shipping.

IMO is also developing a mandatory International Code (Polar Code) to regulate standards for vessel operating in polar waters. The Polar Code is currently under development and will address issues like design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue, and environmental protection matters.[8]

The Arctic Council also addressed shipping directly in 2009 within the AMSA Report, providing a set of policy recommendations. Following this report, the Arctic states concluded the first binding agreement adopted under the auspices of the Arctic Council, the Arctic Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue Agreement, also known as SAR. The first of its type, the SAR agreement is a binding instrument aimed to strengthen search and rescue coordination and cooperation in the Arctic by improving communication and dividing responsibilities in the event of rescue operations.[9]


What are the risks of shipping in the Arctic?

Photo credit: Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada
Photo credit: Paul Nicklen / National Geographic Stock / WWF-Canada

Increasing vessel volumes in the Arctic attract attention to the need to focus on emergency preparedness and environmental responses.[10] Even a limited expansion of trans- and intra-Arctic shipping poses a threat to the region’s ecosystems and the livelihood of local communities.

In addition, the release of oil through operational or accidental discharge is the most dangerous threat to the Arctic environment from shipping. Other negative impacts of shipping expansion are the threat of disruption to migratory patterns of birds and other animals, introduction of alien species, and anthropogenic noise that would impact marine species, especially mammals.[11] High costs associated to the use of ice-breakers and harsh weather conditions are also risks that may have a significant economic impact on the shipping industry.



[1] Arctic Council, 2009. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report; Arctic Council, 2013. Status on Implementation of the AMSA 2009 Report Recommendations.

[2] Arctic Council, 2009. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report.

[3] Arctic resource development report

[4] Østreng, W., 2012. Shipping and Resources in the Arctic Ocean: A Hemispheric Perspective. Arctic Yearbook.

[5] Laurence C. Smith, L.C.& Stephenson, S. R., 2013. New Trans-Arctic shipping routes navigable

by midcentury. PNAS Early Edition.

[6] Østreng, W., 2012. Shipping and resources in the Arctic Ocean: a hemispheric perspective. Arctic Yearbook.

[7] Ibid.

[8] International Maritime Organization (IMO), 2014. Shipping in polar waters. Official Website.

[9] Molenaar, E.J., et al., 2014. Introduction to the Arctic. In Tedsen, E., Cavalieri, S., Kraemer, R. A., eds., 2014. Arctic Marine Governance: Opportunities for Transatlantic Cooperation. Berlin: Springer.

[10] Det Norske Veritas & Fridtjof Nansen Institute, 2012. Arctic Resource Development. Risks and Responsible Management. Joint report prepared for the ONS Summit 2012.

[11] Riedel, A., 2014. The Arctic Marine environment. In Tedsen, E., Cavalieri, S., Kraemer, R. A., eds., 2014. Arctic Marine Governance: Opportunities for Transatlantic Cooperation. Berlin: Springer.


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