Arctic Access: Project Cargo for Resource Extraction
Almost everything you’ve heard about the melting arctic is wrong.
How can I possibly say that? Everything in the press of late would indicate that the Northwest Passage (NWP) between the North Slope of Alaska and the eastern part of the Canadian arctic will soon be overrun with all manner of ships, especially container ships taking advantage of the shorter distance.
The ‘fact’ that arctic ice is disappearing fast is so well established that discussion has moved on to examine the lack of available charts, whether modern hydrography can ensure the charts that do exist are even accurate, and who really owns this prospective arctic shortcut. The US is even denying Canadian sovereignty and Canada is enforcing its claim by building the world’s most expensive conventional icebreaker.
Take these examples from recent news articles:
“The future for Canadian sovereignty in the North may be melting as fast as the arctic ice” - Carleton University
Dr. Huebert, University of Calgary:
“...We do not know that much. Some of the charts (i.e. maps) we have of the Northwest Passage date back to the late 1800s.”
“The arctic ocean could be ice free in the summer very soon, possibly in as little as 4 or 5 years”- David Suzuki
So the story seems to be that the arctic is melting at a precipitous rate and the entire place is almost wide open for shipping for the majority of the summer. Unfortunately, the truth is slightly different.
Yes, the arctic is melting and the ice cover continues to shrink at a rapid rate. Yes, there is an open water passage that is wide open due to melting of the ice cover. But awkwardly for the story it’s the Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the northern coast of Russia that is melting first and where the passage is open for a good deal of the summer.
On our side of the polar cap it’s a different case entirely. Ice is melting but the period when the passage is wide open from one end to the other is still only a couple of weeks – and not always at the same time of the summer. (Why the length and regularity of this period is important we’ll address a bit later.)
While the ice conditions on the NSR are by no means benign, the North American side of the cap has a lot of nasty ice that raises the difficulty to a much higher level. By nasty ice I mean multi year and glacial ice. For the uninitiated, multi year ice is ice that has survived more than one summer’s melt. Glacial ice is icebergs, the Titanic killing stuff that is shed by glaciers, the overwhelming majority of which are produced in northwest Greenland. As ice ages it becomes less salty and it’s structure changes. It becomes harder.
This is important because while regular arctic ice is hard, multi year and glacial ice is really, really hard. As an old shipmate of mine used to say, when you are navigating in ice, the difference between hitting first year ice and multi year ice is the difference between hitting porridge or concrete. This hard ice drifts down from the polar cap through the arctic islands, or in the case of icebergs from the Melville Bight into Baffin Bay. It causes havoc for anyone trying to take a low- or no-ice-class container ship through the NWP. Multi year ice is disappearing, and according to some studies, at a faster rate than first year ice, but the last place it is forecast to disappear, of course, is the NWP.
Another issue that is mentioned is the lack of adequate hydrography, by which I mean the surveying of the area so as to produce suitable modern charts.
I have read several times about the dire state of charting in the arctic and there are certainly vast areas that are either unsurveyed or where the survey depths are so far apart or were surveyed so long ago as to be of little practical value. However, there is a channel that runs from Alaska through Coronation Gulf to the eastern part of the Canadian arctic that was surveyed in the 1990s, using modern methods, with narrow intervals that would indicate a safe passage for a Panamax size vessel. I know this to be true for two reasons, first because I was involved in the project where the Canadian Hydrographic Service in partnership with mining and shipping companies completed the survey and second because I have pulled the charts and examined them in detail.
Where ships frequently have problems of late is when they stray from surveyed areas or do not have sufficient ice class to stay in the surveyed channel when there is ice in their path. (They also get into trouble when they try to take shortcuts.) For the American side my understanding is that fourteen new or revised charts of the Alaska coastline will be released this summer. So while the arctic is certainly not well surveyed, it is not just a white area on the charts either.
There have been frequent references in the press, particularly in Canada, about the threat to Canadian sovereignty by the US insisting on the right of free passage through Canadian arctic waters. Indeed one of the first pieces of modern arctic antipollution legislation came about because of the SS Manhattan voyage through the Canadian arctic, done without permission but with assistance from Canada. This is not a simple issue and for that reason the press reports in attempting to simplify, or perhaps to gather more eyeballs, report it incorrectly. As President Bush stated in 2007, “...the United States does not question Canada’s sovereignty over its arctic islands.”
There is not so much an argument between Canada and the US on this issue; it is more that they have different aims that are just not compatible. The US wants to maintain the right of free passage through the arctic Archipelago, not because they think that Canada would ever try to withhold that but because if they concede the right of free passage here it means that other countries would attempt the same arguments elsewhere. Canada for its part just wants to have the ability to stop substandard ships from transiting the arctic, which is something the US would certainly not argue with in other circumstances. I sometimes think that mostly the diplomats just try to avoid talking about it because they know there is not an easy solution. This of course is an over-simplification of a complex matter, but a very readable explanation of all of the issues is available from http://www.parl.gc.ca/content/lop/researchpublications/prb0805-e.htm.
Lastly of course there is the whole discussion about the imminent use of the Northwest Passage by container ships, roaring through that open water using inadequate charts. The first argument to this is entirely empirical. I attend at least a couple of conferences each year that are devoted to arctic shipping and I have done this for a number of years. I have yet to see anyone attending those conferences from a container shipping company. This is pretty thin evidence I grant you, but if there really were an overwhelming interest surely someone would’ve shown up?
There is other evidence as well. There is no doubt that the route through the Northwest Passage is certainly shorter for ships going between Europe and the Far East. Ships certainly would save fuel taking a route through the Northwest Passage, but fuel is not the only consideration.
I gave a presentation several years ago to the Transportation Association of Canada on just this subject. I consulted a couple of different container shipping companies for their opinions as a peer review. They felt that the Northwest Passage was not going to be of interest to them at least for the next several years for a number of reasons:
Container lines function on regularity and predictability. They have to be able to give ETAs for containers that people can rely on, particularly for supply of industrial parts. Routing a ship through the Northwest Passage when there’s even a chance of ice that could slow the ship or force it to turn around and go back is just not going to happen. In the same vein, if anything goes wrong with one of the ships while it is in the arctic there is virtually nowhere for it to be fixed, and the ship would likely have to be towed out of the arctic to a repair yard. In that case those containers are going to be a long time getting to their final destination.
Added insurance and ice class costs.
There is a considerable saving in bunker cost for the shorter route, particularly with the rise in cost of bunkers. However, there is also an offsetting increase in insurance costs for breaking what is called Institute Warranty Limits, basically for going far enough north to increase the chance of encountering ice. Additionally the ships would likely have to carry some degree of ice class, at least for the foreseeable future. Ice class can add 10 to 15 percent to the build cost of a typical ship. How much of the savings are reduced by increased insurance and capital costs is an area that is being studied. A report released by the classification society DNV thought that the area would not be ready for container ships until after 2030 and possibly as late as 2050.
Container ship routing.
The routing of container ships is not based on one loading port and one discharge port per voyage. Even though the two of the largest container terminals in the world are in Shanghai and Rotterdam there are virtually no container ships that go directly between the two ports. Their routing is more like a milk route, dropping off full containers and picking up. The route for our two areas as given above is more likely to be from China to the west coast of the US, a couple of ports there, through the Panama Canal and into Galveston, thence to Georgia and up to New York and finally across to Europe. Loading a ship in Shanghai and sending it straight through to the East Coast of the US or to Europe would require a large degree of unusual planning to ensure there were only containers going point-to-point, which would mean delays in storing containers and therefore extra cost.
The size of container ships.
The 10,000-TEU and 13,000-TEU ships being built today can’t fit through the existing Panama Canal but they will through the new one, as well as a proposed canal in Nicaragua, should it be built. The draft in parts of the NWP is nowhere deep enough to allow the larger ships that now exist, much less the ships being planned. It is of course possible to build wider, shallower ships for the route but again that adds extra expense.
The arctic ice is melting, there is no doubt. There will be much greater access for ships in the next 20 to 30 years. But for now it’s going to be project shipping for new mines and oil and gas developments. As for the imminent hordes of container ships sailing freely through dangerously unchartered waters? Not likely.