Arctic update: Maritime 'gold rush' heats up in the northern passages

An old shipmate of mine is on a passenger ship plying the waters off of Northern Canada this summer, another colleague from Seattle is master on a survey boat in the Chukchi Sea, and a steward I know is working on an oilrig right now in Dutch Harbor, Alaska. As the ice retreats again this year, a whole different reality in the Arctic is emerging. The Northeast Passage above Russia and the Northwest Passage above Canada and Alaska are now open and navigable in the summer and early fall, and companies are rushing to take advantage of the new opportunities the ice melt is creating. The new Arctic Gold Rush is gaining momentum.

In 1997, the Finnish-flag ice-class tanker Uikku became the first commercial ship to cross the passage along the northern coast of Russia. Since then, a number of commercial ships have used the route – including cruise ships running from Anchorage, Alaska, to Helsinki, Finland. The economic benefits of using the Northeast Passage are striking. Last summer the Danish bulker, Nordic Barents, took a 40,000-ton load of iron ore from Norway across the passage, through the Bering Strait and then down to China. The trip took 33 percent less time and saved thousands of miles in distance, thereby reaping nearly $200,000 in fuel savings alone – compared to a conventional sea route to China. Even better, taking the passage allowed the ship to completely avoid the Suez Canal and the high-risk piracy areas off of Somalia.

The shipping world has shown a new interest in the Northwest Passage as well – especially because the general public continues to clamor for more cruises to pristine natural areas in the Arctic. Since 2006, Hapag-Lloyd has conducted Northwest Passage cruises between Alaska and Iceland. Just a few years ago, Greenland had only a handful of local tour boats operating to show tourists around – there are now nearly 200. Olafur Grimsson, president of Iceland, recently remarked that the Northwest Passage is becoming "a trans-Arctic Panama Canal." While that may be a stretch, in 2010 alone the number of vessels transiting the passage nearly tripled from the year before.

Despite the economic push to take advantage of the open water in the Arctic, much still needs to be done before the northern passages can be used fully and more safely. Reliable aids to navigation, updated nautical charts and adequate emergency response capabilities are just some of the things still lacking along both routes. With the huge amount of money and resources at stake, however, a number of Arctic nations have been spurred to action.

Norway, Iceland, Russia, Canada, Denmark and the United States have all conducted surveying in support of their Arctic Ocean claims. Russia has assigned a fleet of nuclear icebreakers to escort commercial ships through the Northeast Passage, while Canada has embarked on a CAD $7 billion building program for ice-class patrol ships to monitor the Northwest Passage. Here in the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued an Arctic Nautical Charting Plan, designed to update navigational publications and charts along Alaska's northern coast. The U.S. Coast Guard is pushing Congress to allocate funds for two new icebreakers, and has tested small rescue boats for Arctic operations off the coast of northern Alaska. The Coast Guard also established a temporary base near Barrow, Alaska, last summer, and for the first time in history plans to issue an ice navigator endorsement – certifying that a mariner is qualified to pilot a ship in treacherous ice conditions (A Mariner's Notebook, PM #121).

Along with the opening up of shipping lanes, the receding ice has presented another opportunity – the drilling for oil in Arctic waters. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,669 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of liquid natural gas could be recovered from the Arctic – with the vast majority (84 percent) of it below the sea floor. Drilling for oil in this fragile environment is problematic on many levels. According to a joint U.S. Arctic Research Commission/Prince William Sound Oil Spill Recovery Institute study, some traditional oil spill responses are ineffective in ice and icy water, and many experts worry that a significant spill would devastate the fragile ecosystem. In addition to operational concerns, there are legal issues regarding drilling for oil in the Arctic.

Indigenous peoples have rights to certain Arctic Ocean resources, and have stated that any drilling must be in accordance with their treaties and agreements. In addition, there are some territorial disputes among the Arctic nations which, if left unresolved, could stop any forward movement on oil drilling in the region. Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark all have a military presence in the north to defend their claims to oil and other resources – something each country has stated it would do if necessary.

Thankfully, recent joint meetings among the Arctic countries in Nuuk, Greenland, touted collaboration, resulting in the signing of a joint search and rescue agreement. That was a good first step, but nevertheless only a first step. As the ice continues to melt and the world eyes the vast riches and opportunities of the north, it remains to be seen whether or not the Arctic nations can continue to face the promise and challenge of the new Arctic Gold Rush — peacefully, maturely and with cooperation.

Till next time I wish you all smooth sailin'.

By Professional Mariner Staff