Arctic Environmental Report on Shipping Exploitation

Last week Transport & Environment NGO released a report highlighting environmental threats from increased shipping activities in the Arctic. As the decline of Arctic sea-ice continues, the prospect of an ice-free Arctic ocean in the near future draws closer. Arctic melting is seen by industry and some governments as an opportunity to develop human and exploitative activities in the region (oil and gas production, mining, shipping, tourism). But while Arctic melting is surely an effect of climate change, it is imperative that it does not become another cause of climate change. This vicious circle threating the Arctic and the global ecosystems needs to be broken.

By 2050, Arctic sea routes could attract around 10% of the total container trade between Asia and Europe. Unless action is taken, this increase has the potential to cause devastating effects on the Arctic ecosystem. This would represent 850 transit voyages annually carrying about 2.5 million TEU (Twenty-foot equivalent units – a way of measuring container capacity in international shipping).

Aside from the reduction in distance, the expected uptake of the Arctic sea routes will also depend on additional factors; rising insurance costs due to use of the Arctic sea route, potential additional costs linked with the use of these routes (e.g. ice-breaker escort), crew training to operate in polar conditions, reduced ship speeds required in Arctic waters that would diminish the economic incentive of the shortened distance, etc.

Record of melting Ice through the years (Source: ACIA (2004) Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, Highlights, Cambridge University Press)

Even with the current low shipping activity in the Arctic, nearly 300 accidents and incidents occurred in the region from 1995 to 2004. If safety and environmental concerns are not properly addressed, environmental impacts and risks will multiply dangerously.

Without additional policies, environmental impacts will rise with rising traffic. Environmental risks fall in three categories.

  1. safety failures such as accidents, collisions and sinkings
  2. legally permissible, intentional routine vessel discharges of oil and chemicals and of sewage, grey water, sewage sludge, and garbage
  3. the normal operation of a ship will also cause diverse impacts on the Arctic ecosystem, including noise disturbances affecting marine mammals and emissions of air pollutants

Today’s general assumption underlying support for the development of new Arctic sea routes is that they will reduce CO2 emissions because of the shorter distances between the major European, Asian and North American ports. Whilst it is true that distances are shortened for certain specific routes, the net impact of overall fuel consumption and CO2 is uncertain because of rebound effects – if sea transport becomes cheaper, more of it becomes economically viable.

Possible interactions between HFO and Arctic Sea Ice in the event of an oil-spill (Source: AMAP Assessment report: Arctic Pollution Issues (after original figure by Bobra and Fingas))

In conclusion the report suggests three priority measures to reduce the impact of shipping in the Arctic:

  1. cut shipping emissions of black carbon, which absorbs heat from the sun and is one of the main causes of ice melting in the region;
  2. ban the use by shipping of heavy fuel oil in Arctic waters, as hasalready been implemented in the Antarctic. This oil produces more toxic air pollutants and in the case of an oil spill would have catastrophic effects.
  3. require ships to operate at slower speeds. Such a measure would minimise the risk of accidents and bring huge safety and environmental benefits.

Source: Transport & Environment


  1. Alan Kirkby Patentee says:

    Under Arctic ice oil escape safety.

    E02B 15/04

    PCT/GB2011/051273 KIRKBY, Alan Dennis KIRKBY, Alan Dennis
    A device for collection of oil and gas from an underwater source comprising a balloon- like structure (1) defined by an envelope having an opening (18), which, in operation, is on the underside of the balloon- like structure, which balloon- like structure includes: a vent (23) adapted to vent gas in the envelope, and control means (2) for controlling the oil upper level having a closure valve (3) adapted to control flow of gas in the envelope through the vent, the valve being closable by a valve closure member operable by a float (8) adapted to float on the oil to determine the minimum volume of gas in the envelope, wherein, in use, the balloon- like structure is adapted to be placed over the source to collect oil and gasses from said underwater source. The balloon- like structure further includes buoyancy means (10, 12, 14, 16, 17) adapted to control the buoyancy of the structure to enable ascent to the surface of the water in a controlled manner. The envelope may be formed of a flexible material to enable it to be collapsed or folded for storage and/or transportation.
    Alan Kirkby – M +44(0)7754692946 – E:

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