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Shipping and the Northwest Passage - Future growth and risks

Climate change is attracting more and more adventurers to Arctic waters. Even trade fleets are flirting with the idea of taking shorter routes through the Northwest and Northeast Passages. However, the risks are still huge.

On any other route, he might have risked carrying on. But not here. Not in Canada's Arctic maze of islands, where the cold seawater looks like molten lead and the bleak, grey shores are hardly more inviting. A faulty boat engine is certainly the last thing you need in this environment. "That's why I cut short the adventure in the end," explains Martin Sigge. Three years ago, on June 1, 2013, Sigge, who was sixty at the time, set sail from his home port in Sweden. His dream: navigating the Northwest Passage. He had two companions by his side on board the DAX, his nine-meter-long sailing boat. It was in this confined space that they reached Canada, having spent a whole 50 days at sea.
Polar Star assists beset vessel

Their route took them over the North Atlantic past Iceland and Greenland through the Davis Strait to the settlement of Pond Inlet on the coast of Baffin Island. Pond Inlet is a kind of base camp, one of the last human outposts before you are left to fend for yourself for a long time. The motor had been consistently causing problems, even before Sigge steered his DAX into the Northwest Passage. A few days later the expedition was over. "A large proportion of the waters up there have not yet been properly mapped. There are shoals lurking everywhere. You also have to think about ice floes all the time, even in summer. Crossing the Passage without a motor and just with sail power is simply too dangerous."

Tour de force through the Arctic Sea

That Sigge's decision was prudent is proven through the case of a smaller cruise liner, which ran aground in the Northwest Passage in August 2010 with 200 passengers on board. It took two days for the Canadian coastguard agency to reach the liner and bring the passengers to safety. The US and Canadian coastguard agencies estimate that only 10 percent of Arctic waterways are known in detail, even though it has been a hundred years since Roald Amundsen first managed to successfully traverse the Northwest Passage. Despite this, the number of people daring to make the journey is constantly increasing.

While in the mid-nineties an average of four ships successfully completed the journey across the Passage, around 20 skippers took on the journey and delivered a tour de force last summer alone. Moreover, these aren't just supply ships keeping the remote settlements along the route alive. The fleet of Passage-conquerors is becoming more and more diverse. In the same year that Martin Sigge decided to abandon his journey, Phillipp Cottier made headlines all over the world. The Swiss-born explorer navigated the legendary waterway in a catamaran. However, he needed the help of an icebreaker to complete his journey.

The seafarers taking on the seaway in rowing boats or kayaks are even more audacious. This summer, cruise liner Crystal Serenity is likely to make for a provisional pinnacle in the history of human presence in the Northwest Passage. If everything goes to plan, 1000 passengers will soon board the 250-meter-long luxury liner to sail beyond the Arctic circle along the continent of North America. Never before have so many people sojourned on the Northwest Passage at the same time.

In light of this rush of chill-seeking adventurers and explorers with champers instead of scurvy on board, Thesar.com, Canada's biggest news portal, published the headline "Is Canada's Northwest Passage the next Everest?" The answer to this question is causing the coastguard agency more and more worry. Canada's icebreaker fleet currently has 15 ships available. Only two of these are capable of breaking through ice with a thickness of up to 2.5m. And Canada has by far the longest coastline in the world. In short: the capacities of the relief forces are severely stretched. This is compounded by the fact that in contrast to the Russian part of the Arctic route, no entry permit is required for the Northwest Passage. This means that the Canadian coastguard agency can only estimate the number of ships that enter the Northwest Passage.

The ice-free Arctic: climate change is getting serious

In the past, at least you could rely on nature. The permanent ice was a barrier. No one wasted any thought on trying to break their way through it. But the word "permanent", just like the ice, has long since become unstable. The ice only blocks travel every so often. Climate change is getting serious. One of the institutions which has been meticulously scrutinizing the Arctic sea ice for decades is the National Snow and Ice Data Center in the US city of Boulder in Colorado. At the end of March this year, the research institution published a memorable press release, in which the institution's director Mark Serreze explained: "I have never seen such a crazy winter in the Arctic. The heat was relentless."

According to the report of Andreas Friedrich from the German Meteorological Service, the temperature in the Svalbards in December of last year was plus 7 degrees Celcius instead of the usual minus 25. That was just a snapshot in time, but it's a proven fact that the average surface area of the ice covering the Arctic last winter only amounted to 14.5 million square kilometers. This is the lowest figure since records began. Various studies predict that by 2050, the ice caps in the Arctic Ocean will have melted to such an extent that in the summer specific ships could sail right over the North Pole.


The irony of climate change: by taking the shortcut across the Arctic routes, transport ships are not only saving time and money, but also reducing emissions. In the aforementioned summer of 2013, the Nordic Orion, weighing in at 75,000 tons, was the first cargo ship of its caliber to successfully travel through the Northwest Passage. The cargo ship, ice class 1A, is a ship for harsh environments and is best suited to Arctic conditions. Instead of heading for the Panama Canal, the Nordic Orion, with coal as cargo on board, set sail from Vancouver towards the Bering Strait. According to data from the Danish shipping company, the journey to the destination port in the Finnish city of Pori was cut down by approximately 2000 kilometers – a saving of 80,000 dollars in terms of fuel costs, according to the company.

Nonetheless, this success does not mean that ship after ship will soon be battling their way across the Arctic island maze, rail by rail. “It is very unlikely that the Northwest Passage is going to become a viable commercial shipping route in the near future," says Captain Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Risk Consultant at Allianz Global Corporate & Specialty (AGCS). Not even if the current low price of oil were to pick up considerably once more and the shipping companies were to go back to considering taking the shorter, but more risky, northern route one more time. Kinsey's skepticism towards the idea of the Arctic as the new cargo ship highway is understandable. After all, regardless of climate change, the route is and will remain dangerous. Not every iceberg greets seafarers in a friendly manner. Many of them lie just below the water's surface and pose a danger to every hull.

The underestimated risk

Not to mention the fact that the underwater areas are, in fact, still nothing but a large blank area on the navigational charts. Even the much more commonly frequented Northeast Passage is not for the faint-hearted. Last year, there were 71 incidents in Arctic waters, representing an increase of almost 30% in comparison to 2014. More and more smaller vessels, particularly fishing boats, are daring to enter this icy realm. But many skippers underestimate the waters. Kinsey explained that in most cases the engines give out, “driven in part by the harsh conditions“.

Northwest Passage . Climate change

The Polar Code will come into force on January 1, 2017, a kind of obligation for ships traveling in Arctic and Antarctic waters to ensure their suitability. With these rules and regulations, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) hopes to reduce the risks to crews and the environment. Ships are ranked in categories A, B or C depending on their ice capability, e.g. the strength of their hull. Furthermore, the companies must prove that their crews are appropriately trained and prepared for emergencies. For example, as part of the equipment on board the Serenity cruiser, the ship is fitted with a radar system, which detects icebergs, even throughout the night. In addition, the crew should complete a specific maneuver training, which prepares them for the journey through the icy waters. Last but not least, the tourist ship is even escorted by a British research vessel with icebreaker capacity. It is difficult to imagine this kind of luxury being affordable for normal cargo ships.

Northwest Passage . Climate change

And in Kinsey's opinion, the Polar Code alone is not enough. Although the rules and regulations are a milestone in the development of polar shipping routes, “but when we look at the Arctic, we really can’t wait until the last minute to ensure safe operations. These things need to be studied and developed in advance of any wider use of the Northern Sea Route, for example. We have to try and get away from the reactive mindset and get into proactive mindset”.

One of the reasons why the seasoned sailing fan Martin Sigge eventually brought himself to abandon his journey was the isolation of these waters. Every adventurer’s dream is that everything goes well on board. But in an emergency it can turn into hell. The infrastructure of the vessel is weak. There is only a handful of safe ports along the journey. And not even that in the Northwest Passage. What if an oil ship had an accident in these waters? Compared to the remote location in the far north, the place where the Exxon Valdez oil tanker suffered an accident off the south coast of Alaska in March 1989, causing one of the greatest natural disasters in history, was almost an urban motorway.

"There are still a great number of unanswered questions, particularly around crew training, their suitability and potential rescue and clean-up operations," says Kinsey. In spite of the Polar Code. The industry simply lacks experience. The AGCS expert thus suggests that the code should be updated every year. A living security manual, as it were, which takes into consideration the latest experiences of crews, warns of dangers and provides solutions which have proved successful in practice.