Arctic natural resources and shipping
30th August 2010 18:43 GMT

As the period of minimum sea ice extent in the Arctic approaches, carriers and cargo owners are continuing to experiment with passage through the Arctic Ocean.

And container ships and bulk carriers looking to save thousands of kilometers in voyage distance aren’t the only vessels attempting these routes.  

For example, a Russian tanker carrying gas condensate recently left Murmansk on its way to China via the Northeast Passage.  

With the US Geological Survey estimating that the Arctic holds about one-quarter of the undiscovered hydrocarbons in the world, in addition to large quantities of minerals, one can expect natural resource exploration and production in the Arctic to ramp up, and soon (e.g., new oil drilling off Greenland by Cairn Energy).  Shipping that is associated with the search, processing, and transport of these valuable commodities will also assuredly increase.   

The problem, from an environmental perspective, is that there are no internationally approved, Arctic-specific rules to prevent polar shipping from causing substantial ecological harm.  

The potential threats from shipping on vulnerable Arctic marine ecosystems are myriad: sewage and grey water, black carbon, invasive species, garbage, underwater noise, and marine mammal collisions.  

Fortunately, chances for the enactment of strong precautionary measures to protect the Arctic environment from vessel impacts are robust.  The IMO’s Design and Equipment Sub-Committee has undertaken the task of developing a Polar Code, or mandatory suite of rules, for polar shipping.  Many nations, especially those bordering the Arctic and Southern Oceans, have been engaged in the subject.  

In fact, a recent study by DNV, put forth by Norway to the IMO , assesses the environmental risks posed by normal vessel operations in Polar Regions and offers possible courses of action to minimise these risks.

Many of the concerns raised by Norway have also been expressed by environmental NGOs at the IMO, including Friends of the Earth and Pacific Environment , which are taking an active role in the Sub-Committee’s work on the Polar Code.  

With few pristine areas left in the world, it is essential that we all collectively work together to make sure that the Arctic remains an ecological wonder even as climate change and attendant sea ice loss enable greater cruise ship activity and natural resource-related shipping, as well as nascent trans-Arctic operations.

* See Sustainable Shipping library for MEPC 61 proposals on the Polar Code.


John Kaltenstein,
30th August 2010 18:43 GMT

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