Navigating the New Maritime Arctic

By Captain Lawson Brigham, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)

The long, rich history of Arctic marine explorations continues today with marine research conducted to the depths of the Arctic Ocean and in every coastal sea. An unprecedented search is also under way to determine the limits of the outer continental shelf and secure future, national seabed claims. This complex mix of driving forces, each directly influencing the many uses of the maritime Arctic, has generated global media attention and much speculation.


Few perhaps realize that the largest zinc mine in the world, the Red Dog Mine, is located in northwest Alaska. Several of the world's largest bulk carriers sail into the Arctic Ocean during a short, ice-free summer season and transport zinc ore to global markets from East Asia to western Canada. On the other side of the Arctic, the world's leading producer of nickel and palladium (and fourth largest copper producer) is located in the heart of Siberia at Norilsk. The Norilsk Nickel Complex is linked by rail to the port of Dudinka on the Yensiey River in western Siberia and is serviced by an advanced Arctic marine transportation system. Year-round operations between Dudinka and Murmansk have been maintained since the 1978-79 winter season, and today, a fleet of icebreaking container carriers, commercial ships designed as icebreakers that do not require icebreaker escort or convoy, carry nickel plates to domestic and foreign markets. Both mines for decades into the future will be solely dependent on marine systems to deliver their valuable commodities to global markets.

Important international fisheries are located in the Bering and Barents seas. Managed by the coastal states, the harvests for these productive Arctic regions also serve global markets. However, two key uncertainties confront the future of Arctic fisheries. Will these fisheries move northward with a continuing retreat of Arctic sea ice, and will the warming waters support healthy and productive ecosystems which will in turn provide robust fisheries ? No one knows what the trends will be.

Looking to secure their financial futures, Norway and Russia have taken active and strategic approaches to developing Arctic oil and natural gas. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Norway's Sn o hvit field has been sent in LNG ships during 2007 and 2008 from northern Norway to markets in Spain and the U.S. East Coast. LNG carriers from this source will likely transport gas to world markets for several decades.

Sovcomflot, Russia's largest shipping company, has established a fleet of three icebreaking oil tankers, all built in Korea by Samsung, for a shuttle system between a new offshore terminal (Varandey) in the Pechora Sea to Murmansk. Sovcomflot has ordered two additional icebreaking tankers from the Admiralty Shipyards in St. Petersburg to shuttle oil to Murmansk from the Privazlomarye oil field being developed in the offshore Pechora Sea. U.S. and Canadian federal lease sales in the Arctic offshore during 2008 represent long-term strategies to establish Arctic energy sources in the future.

Plans to ship high-grade iron ore deposits on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic to Europe indicate establishment of a future fleet of ice-capable carriers operating year-round. Investment in such a large project requires a relatively long life of the resource, and it appears the Baffin Island venture could operate for at least three decades. Future development would provide a viable economic link between the Canadian Arctic and European markets.

The global recession may in the short-term curtail some major Arctic developments. However, the scarcity and strategic value of Arctic natural resources, especially hydrocarbons and hard minerals, will certainly drive future requirements for offshore and marine transportation systems to facilitate development and carriage of these commodities to southern markets.

Another form of globalization is the recent arrival of the marine tourism industry off Greenland and other Arctic coastal areas. Larger numbers of cruise ships came to the Arctic Ocean in 2008 from their normal operating environments in warmer waters. Nearly all of these ships are on voyages where they sail north to Arctic waters for a brief two to three weeks.

The message from the recent surge in Arctic marine operations is unambiguous. The global marine industry has come to the Arctic driven by two primary factors—natural resource developments influenced by global commodities prices and scarce resources and the increasing presence of cruise ships responding to premium markets and the growing popularity of polar tourism.

Arctic Sea Ice and Marine Access

From a purely operational perspective, marine access for surface ships in the Arctic Ocean is increasing. The observed record of Arctic sea ice for the past five decades indicates substantial decreases in extent, coverage, and thickness and more rapid changes during the most recent decade. Sea ice is also getting younger, because less ice is surviving the summer melt season. The record minimum of Arctic sea ice extant in September 2007, visible in satellite photography, shows remarkably large, ice-free areas in the coastal and central Arctic Ocean. Even major navigation routes such as the Northwest Passage across the Canadian Arctic and the Northern Sea Route across the top of Eurasia were essentially open for brief periods in Arctic summer. The same satellites observed the September 2008 Arctic sea ice minimum to be slightly larger than the previous year. This year-to-year variability, both regionally and for the entire Arctic Ocean, poses a practical challenge to many of the key maritime industry planners, designers, shipbuilders, regulators, and insurers.

It is safe to say that as of spring 2009 greater Arctic marine access is a reality, especially in summer. Longer seasons of navigation are highly plausible for offshore hydrocarbon development, access to shoreside mining, marine tourism, and possibly fishing. But what about the future of Arctic sea ice and marine access ? Sea ice simulations using global climate models indicate increasing areas of the Arctic Ocean may be partially ice-covered or even open water in summer through the century. There is also the strong possibility of an entirely ice-free Arctic Ocean for a brief period of days or weeks. Such an event will mean that only new ice will grow through the autumn and winter months. However, the timing of this physical change is uncertain, but some scientists believe it will occur within the decade and probably well before mid-century.

What has been missed in much of the speculation about new trade routes and trans-Arctic navigation is that the future Arctic Ocean will remain ice-covered for much of the year. No credible science supports the argument for the year-round disappearance of the Arctic sea ice cover. To the contrary, model simulations show extensive coverage in winter, spring, and autumn for 8-10 months. The ice will most likely be thinner, and there should be less coverage, but the cover may also be more mobile. It is not certain that all regions will be more easily navigable.

The challenges of trans-Arctic shipping, whatever the route taken (Northwest Passage, Northern Sea Route or central Arctic Ocean right across the top), include economics, scheduling, cargo selection, regulatory futures, insurance, the variability of the sea ice operating environment, transit fees, and more. From a practical regulatory position, it is highly plausible most ships operating in the Arctic Ocean will be required to have some measure of polar-class capability. Most will be designed and built for at least limited ice operations. A key question for ships operating on longer Arctic seasons, when a significant sea ice cover remains, is whether they will be capable of independent ice operations or will they require icebreakers for escort or convoy.

Many of the unanswered questions relate to the shipping economics of trans-Arctic navigation. Can year-round routes be reliable and economically viable for even a three- to four-month season ? Would global shippers adapt their schedules to a seasonal Arctic operation ? The economic success of all trans-Arctic routes will be based in part on ship speeds maintained in both ice-free and ice-covered waters to take advantage of shorter transit distances using the Arctic Ocean. It is technically feasible that a modern icebreaking commercial ship could cross the Arctic Ocean today. The real unanswered questions remain about the cargo such ships might carry and the economic viability of the chosen routes.

Governance and Security Challenges

During the five decades of the Cold War the Arctic was a region where the two superpowers faced off and where NATO nations attempted to track naval movements of the large and capable Soviet fleet. Since the end of the USSR, the Arctic from a geopolitical perspective has undergone significant change. Today there is an intergovernmental forum, the Arctic Council, made up of the representatives of the eight Arctic nations and six Arctic indigenous groups called the Permanent Participants. The foci of the council are on environmental protection and sustainable development issues; defense and military security are not, however, on the table for discussion.

Renewed scientific cooperation is led by an International Arctic Science Committee, including many non-Arctic states such as the United Kingdom, China, and Germany. For governance of the Arctic Ocean, the central framework is the United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), like it is for all of the global oceans. UNCLOS is a comprehensive, multi-lateral regime that provides the structure and general international rules for marine navigation (the principle of freedom of navigation is central), coastal state rights, the high seas, and other provisions for such issues as environmental protection, ice-covered areas, and determining the coastal country's rights to an extended continental shelf. UNCLOS provides stability to the Arctic and the five Arctic countries that rim the central Arctic Ocean.

A declaration signed in Greenland in May 2008 (the Ilulisaat Declaration) reaffirmed the importance of UNCLOS as an extensive legal framework. The countries agreed that there was no need for a comprehensive, multi-lateral treaty for the Arctic region, since the combination of UNCLOS and various international organizations provides global and regional forms of governance and regulatory oversight. For the global shipping industry the primary body is the International Maritime Organization (IMO) where any special Arctic shipping rules will be developed and negotiated. IMO also provides a measure of stability to the Arctic situation, since the Arctic countries must work with a host of maritime industry stakeholders and engage with a host of non-Arctic states that flag ships operating today in the Arctic Ocean or may voyage there in the future.

There is little doubt the Arctic today is a more complex marine region with many competing interests and a host of new stakeholders, principally from the global maritime industry. Many of the newcomers have little knowledge of the Arctic marine operating environment. Questions have arisen over whether this "new maritime Arctic" could become another region of tension and regional conflict. If the rhetoric continues, we might see a self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps many political pundits believe we are already there, but many believe otherwise.

For the United States and Russia, the Arctic region should be one of cooperation, not conflict, with shared concern for science, environmental protection, and marine shipping issues, all within the Arctic Council. The structures are in place today to enhance cooperation among the Arctic states to protect the marine environment and the Arctic people, improve marine safety, and collaborate in the sharing of ship traffic and environmental information. Greater cooperation is imperative, and highly possible, in dealing with the future development of international rules that should lessen regional disputes and develop a more integrated approach to Arctic marine affairs.

Captain Brigham is a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and senior fellow at the Institute of the North in Anchorage. He served as commanding officer of four Coast Guard cutters including USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11) on Arctic and Antarctic voyages.


New U.S. Arctic Policy

On 12 January 2009 President George W. Bush signed a National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD-66) and Homeland Security Presidential Directive (HSPD-26) on "Arctic Region Policy." It is the first new U.S. Arctic policy statement since 1994. The previous statement, a Presidential Decision Directive (PDD-26), included both Arctic and Antarctic policies, but this new directive is devoted solely to the Arctic (PDD-26 remains in effect for U.S. Antarctic polices).

NSPD-66 is the result of a two-and-a-half year review process of U.S. Arctic interests led by the Department of State and the National Security Council. An interagency team worked in four subgroups focusing on: governance and scientific cooperation; security and shipping; environment and economics; and U.S. research and assets. The process was open and collaborative, as domestic stakeholders, including industry, indigenous groups and non-governmental organizations were asked for their views.

This non-partisan effort took a comprehensive look at U.S. Arctic interests in view of several key changes over the past 15 years such as climate change, the advent of the Arctic Council, homeland security challenges, new discoveries of potential resources, and concerns for the fragility of the Arctic environment and increasing human activity in the region.

The directive clearly spells out six broad policies of the United States relevant to the Arctic: meeting national security and homeland security needs; protecting the environment and conserving its biological resources; ensuring natural resource management and economic development are environmentally sustainable; strengthening institutions for cooperation among the eight Arctic nations; involving the Arctic's indigenous communities in decisions that affect them; and enhancing scientific monitoring and research into local, regional, and global environmental issues.

The statement includes seven thematic sections, each with directions for implementation by the responsible federal agencies: national security and homeland security; international governance; extended continental shelf and boundary issues; promoting international scientific cooperation; maritime transportation; economic issues, including energy; and environmental protection and conservation of natural resources.

For the maritime and naval communities, NSPD-66 highlights several significant national policies and issues. Not surprising to friends and foes alike, the document states "Freedom of navigation is a top national priority." More specific to the Arctic maritime region, the United States notes that the regime of transit passage applies to passage through the straits of the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage, both of which have straits used for international navigation. NSPD-66 calls for the U.S. Senate to act favorably on U.S. accession to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to protect and advance our global and Arctic interests, including U.S. maritime mobility. A section is devoted to U.S. interests in defining a potential extended Arctic seabed and subsoil area so that the United States might exercise its sovereign rights over any natural resources, a procedure provided to nations that are party to UNCLOS.

Arctic marine transportation is addressed in part by possible actions by the United States in working at the International Maritime Organization to enhance marine safety and protect the Arctic marine environment. Necessary airlift and icebreaking capabilities are mentioned in the implementing strategy that also calls for establishment of a "risk-based capability" to address future use of the Arctic. The United States also supports the application in the Arctic region of the general principles of international fisheries management, an early move to protect the Arctic's living marine resource from over-exploitation.

What is perhaps most striking with the release of NSPD-66 is its transparency. The entire document of some dozen pages, not a brief synopsis like past releases, is out there for the Arctic nations, the Arctic Council, and the global community to see. It provides clear direction to the U.S. federal agencies and gives the international community a long-term vision of U.S. Arctic interests, a useful strategy in today's world. My impression is that it is a comprehensive and flexible policy, one the Obama administration will continue.

- Lawson Brigham


Captain Brigham is a professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and senior fellow at the Institute of the North in Anchorage. He served as commanding officer of four Coast Guard cutters including USCGC Polar Sea (WAGB-11) on Arctic and Antarctic voyages.

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