Arctic Council

05/10/2021 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 05/09/2021 18:48

Navigating the future of Arctic shipping

What an increase in Arctic shipping means for the region

The Arctic marine environment is undergoing extraordinary environmental and developmental changes. Access to the Arctic Ocean is changing quickly as sea ice extent reduces and thins - enabling longer seasons of ship navigation and new access to previously difficult to reach regions. At the same time, the Arctic is home to significant natural resources, high commodity prices and a growing worldwide demand. The promise of shorter shipping routes and growing access and demand for natural resources is piquing the interest of nations and industries around the globe.

Ship traffic in the Arctic has been increasing modestly for the last 20 years. With that comes implications for Arctic inhabitants, who could become burdened by marine disruption, increased pollution and more. This underscores the need for fostering cooperation between the Arctic States, Indigenous Permanent Participants and stakeholders in the shipping industry.

While the implications of a more heavily trafficked Arctic Ocean are not yet fully understood, the first step is to fill a critical knowledge gap in shipping trends in the Arctic.

Monitoring Arctic shipping trends

The Arctic Council's Working Group on the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) monitors Arctic ship traffic trends and issues Arctic Shipping Status Reports using its established Arctic Ship Traffic Data (ASTD) System. Its reports define Arctic waters using the International Maritime Organization's International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code).
PAME's first Arctic Shipping Status Report showed that between 2013 and 2019, the number of ships entering the Arctic grew by 25 percent, from 1,298 ships to 1,628 ships. The total distance sailed by those ships in the Arctic grew by 75 percent from 6.51 million nautical miles in 2013 to 9.5 million nautical miles in 2019.

The majority of ships (41 percent) entering the Arctic are commercial fishing vessels. Other types of ships that commonly navigate in the region include bulk carriers, icebreakers, and research vessels. Growing Arctic marine tourism also has its share - 73 cruise ships sailed in Arctic waters in 2019.

Fuels used by ships in the Arctic

PAME's second Arctic Shipping Status Report provides information on fuels used by ships in the Arctic in 2019 with a focus on heavy fuel oils (HFO). HFO is extremely viscous and persists in cold Arctic water for weeks or longer if released, increasing potential to cause damage to marine ecosystems and coastlines. In ice-covered waters, an HFO spill could result in oil becoming trapped in and under the ice. When burned as fuel by ships, HFO has some of the highest concentrations of hazardous emissions among marine fuels. PAME's second Arctic Shipping Status Report shows that around 10 percent of ships in Arctic waters burned HFO as fuel in 2019.

While the number of unique ships in Arctic waters in 2016 is nearly identical to the number of unique ships in those waters in 2019, fuel consumption grew by 82 percent. In 2016, there were no liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers in Arctic waters as compared to 29 LNG tankers in 2019. These 29 LNG tankers consumed over 260,000 tons of fuel, making up the greatest portion of total fuels consumed by ships in the Arctic in 2019.