Seven misconceptions about northern shipping routes | Polarjournal
Christophe de Margerie breaks the ice aft using the ship’s propellers. Photo: Sovcomflot

The Arctic Council’s working groups published an updated report on Arctic maritime traffic in January, with 10 years’ hindsight on the area figures. Last week, Russia announced the withdrawal of its financial contribution to the Arctic Council (8% of the budget). In Brest, France, polar and maritime law expert Anne Choquet and polar navigation specialist Hervé Baudu were invited to speak at a symposium at the École nationale supérieure de techniques avancées (ENSTA). Some preconceived ideas about the appeal of polar sea routes have emerged.

1. Has traffic increased over the last ten years?

The number of registered vessels entering the polar navigation code area has risen by 37% over the last ten years in the Arctic, from 1,298 to 1,783. The distance sailed doubled during this period. “Traffic is boosted by cabotage and small boats,” says Hervé Baudu. Food and semi-industrial fisheries are growing. The increase in merchant traffic is concentrated around Russian mining projects and the Mary River mine in Canada. Even if some emblematic navigations give the impression that the Arctic is opening up to navigation, this is still very relative.

Photo: Esther Horvath

2. Will the ocean be ice-free by 2050 due to climate change?

In winter, the sun’s rays don’t reach the Arctic Ocean, which continues to freeze. The pack ice replenishes itself from October to March. Its average thickness has been falling since 1975, from 3.59 to 1.25 metres. Even if the ocean opens up in summer in the second half of the century – once every 10 years at the height of the melt – there will still be 15% ice in August and September. “It’s a minefield for navigation,” says Hervé Baudu. Arctic currents send sea ice eastwards, blocking the Canadian archipelagos. The opening window is currently short, between one and one-and-a-half months from August 25 in the deepest passage. Last year, McClure Strait was open for only 15 days.

Photo: Michael Wenger

3. Is risk management different from other locations?

“The attractive Arctic is seen as an opportunity, but there are associated risks to biodiversity and human safety,” explains Anne Choquet. Additional measures to traditional regulations are essential, as stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the Polar Code. We have to take into account the lack of equipment in the area, the short summer period and the limited response times for rescue services. Incidents do happen, such as the recent stranding of a cargo ship in the Northeast Passage, or the grounding of a tourist vessel last summer in Greenland. “The choice of flag is crucial for the shipowner”, she adds, for insurance reasons among others. Ice navigation training is necessary to qualify sailors, as is simulator training at the Ecole Nationale Supérieur Maritime in Marseille.

Photo: Joint Arctic Command

4. Does international cooperation enable free movement?

Canada considers that the Northwest Passage must be regulated because it passes through Canadian waters. It is based on agreements signed with the United States, which predate the issue of climate change, stipulating that U.S. icebreakers must request permission to pass through Canada. Today, the United States considers straits to be open because they link two international maritime spaces.
On the Russian side, the State uses an element of international law to exercise a right of passage. This element stipulates that the coastal state may exercise control over its icy waters to ensure safety. In addition, some of the shallow straits are hydrographed, but Russian programs do not share charts.

Image: NASA

5. Is the Arctic Council working on route development?

The Arctic Council brings together organizations of states in the region, and organizes high-level forums and working groups. It is a forum for exchange on the Polar Code for the International Maritime Organization. Some working groups have a budget of 50,000 euros a year to monitor traffic. A useful piece of work for the legal definition of a strait, which takes into account visitor numbers. “But the figures are not comparable with those for other international maritime areas,” notes Anne Choquet. With Russia now on the sidelines of negotiations since the war, a different discourse is emerging with the BRICS countries. “It’s a disaster for science, and a shame because it’s an excellent channel for dialogue,” says Hervé Baudu.

Photo: Arctic Council

6. Does Russia want to develop the Eastern route?

Russia’s ambition is to open the Northeast Passage year-round and become the world’s leading LNG producer. “Russia is sitting on a phenomenal barrel of LNG,” remarks Hervé Baudu. It therefore has to open a channel for the ice-breaking tankers, which are forced to break the pack ice in reverse when it is thicker than 1.5 meters. Several military and service icebreaker projects are underway, with power ratings of 54 MW, 60 MW and 120 MW. “The Russian argument for attracting investors is security,” he adds. Murmansk has become a bastion, a zone of denial in reaction to the presence of NATO, represented by seven of the eight Arctic countries. All its islands are armed. The State controls the passage by imposing paid escorts with its icebreakers. China and Russia plan to exploit offshore oil deposits.

Photo: Novatek

7. Is fishing possible in the Arctic zone defined by the Polar Code?

The international waters of the Arctic Ocean are under moratorium. Fishing is not legally possible. Cod is caught in Greenland’s territorial waters, most of which are exported to China. Fisheries in Russia and around Bering receive new species of fish from the Pacific. Barents Sea stocks are under particular pressure. Some landing points are strategic, such as Kirkenes in Norway. There is a semi-industrial fishery and a food fishery for coastal dwellers. This fleet represents 41% of all registered vessels entering the Polar Code zone. In ten years, the number of vessels has risen from 533 to 723.

Photo: Baffin Fisheries

Camille Lin, PolarJournal

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