Researchers Map Seven Years of Arctic Shipping

nuclear icebreaker convoy
By knyazev vasily / Shutterstock

The Arctic’s declining sea ice has meant more opportunities for the shipping industry to expand its use of the region that in decades past was unnavigable for the vast majority of the year.

The Northwest Passage through Canada and the Northern Sea Route, or Northeast Passage, north of Russia and Siberia, are both valued because they could significantly shorten ship transit times between Asia, Europe, and North America.

In August 2017, a newly designed LNG carrier with an ice-hardened hull became the first merchant ship to sail across the Arctic Ocean without the aid of an icebreaker. The vessel, the Christophe de Margerie, made the voyage in just 19 days, nearly a week faster than the traditional route through the Suez Canal.

In February, a similar tanker, the Eduard Atoll, completed its own unescorted trip through the region in the dead of winter, marking another historic first. During that voyage, the vessel sailed South Korea to Sabetta terminal in northern Russia, where it loaded LNG produced at a new $27 billion plant and transported it to France.

To illustrate this increase in ship activity in the Arctic, a team of scientists has banded together to analyze and map more than 120 million data points in order to track where ships are most using the region.

To make the map, the team, led by Paul Arthur Berkman, director of the science diplomacy center at Tufts University, and Greg Fiske, a geospatial analyst at the Woods Hole Research Center, used data compiled by SpaceQuest, a company designs microsatellites that can monitor the track Automatic Identification System (AIS) signals from ships.

Once the data was plotted, there were some interesting observations to be made.

This map shows unique ship visits to Arctic waters between September 1, 2009, and December 31, 2016. Credit: NASA Earth Observatory

Looking at the data, Berkman, Fiske, and their colleagues found that the mean center of shipping activity moved 300 kilometers north and east—closer to the North Pole—over the 7-year span.

Notably, they were particularly surprised to find more small ships, such as fishing boats, wading farther into Arctic waters. The team also plotted the AIS ship tracks against sea ice data from NSIDC and found that ships are encountering ice more often and doing so farther north each year.

Despite the seemingly growing opportunities for shipping, the increasing number of ships in the region has given rise to serious concerns about pollution, oil spills, and disturbances to marine life, among other possible impacts.

Berkman is the coordinator and lead investigator of Pan-Arctic Options, which provides objective information that can guide the placement of infrastructure and the management of activities such as search and rescue and pollution response.

Now whether or not open Arctic waters will be long-term boon for shipping remains to be seen, but scientists agree that the melting trend does not bode well for the Arctic environment as we have known it.

“Arctic sea ice cover continues to be in a decreasing trend, and this is connected to the ongoing warming of the Arctic,” said Claire Parkinson, a climate scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s a two-way street: the warming means less ice is going to form, and more ice is going to melt. But also, because there is less ice, less of the Sun’s radiation is reflected off of Earth, and this contributes to the warming.”