Monday, August 24, 2009

Arctic Shipping Still Testing the Waters

Last year a few cargo ships quietly made their way across the Arctic Ocean. This year several dozen cargo ships are likely to make the trip, and some of those have already set out. But cargo companies are clearly still testing the waters, wanting to gain experience and compare costs so that they’ll be ready if Arctic shipping becomes routine in the future.

These are other indications of the increased interest in Arctic shipping:

  • There were Canadian military exercises this summer in the Arctic Ocean, including a visit by the prime minister.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard is starting to look into the equipment and skills it would need to operate in the Arctic.
  • Canada has passed new laws and is considering others to regulate shipping in the Arctic.
  • Russia is experimenting with a new, larger icebreaker to keep shipping lanes open in August and September.

The Arctic ice is not cooperating particularly well with shippers’ plans. It turns out that the thinner ice, most of it now less than one meter thick, blows around more easily and has a tendency to pile up in shipping channels. That isn’t expected to keep either of the major Arctic shipping lanes closed, but it represents a risk to ships. That issue aside, the volume of Arctic ice appears already to be less than last year’s record low. Ice extent, which is more significant for shipping, could also set a new low this year. This year’s ice melt is essentially retracing last year’s graph and is about 8 days behind the pace of 2007. This is happening despite weather that is not particularly warm or stormy, but has been helped along by winds and surface currents pushing ice toward the Atlantic.

The current melt pattern is unusually symmetric, so the melt could continue later into September, raising the prospect of matching the record low extent set in September 2007.