Arctic Ship Traffic and Oil Spill Worries Rise as Ice Recedes

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Ships packed with frozen mackerel and herring will sail in convoy behind a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker from Norway to Asia this summer along the Northern Sea Route through the Arctic Ocean -- a trial run as companies rush to capitalize on the world’s hunger for fish and to extract minerals from the top of the world.

Dozens of ships now transit the Arctic each year amid decreasing summer ice — in 2013, 71 vessels plied the Northern Sea Route, including the first container ship. In another first, a bulk carrier transited coal through the famed Northwest Passage on a voyage from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, to Finland. And that traffic is only likelier to get busier.

Hundreds more ships "go up to the Arctic and perform some activity and then they come out," Lawson Brigham, a professor of geography and Arctic policy at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, explained to NBC News. Most of these ships transport equipment to mines and other industrial sites and leave with commodities such as oil, gas, copper, nickel, and iron ore.

The company transporting the fish, Tschudi Shipping Company, was an early star in the rise of shipping cargo through the Arctic instead of the Suez and Panama canals, which can shave weeks off travel time. It played a role in the first non-Russian commercial transit in 2010 when a Norwegian ship ferried iron ore from Kirkenes, in northern Norway close to the Russian border, to China.

Tourists, too, are flocking to the region. For about $25,000 per person, intrepid travelers can board a Russian-built nuclear icebreaker for a 14-day cruise to the North Pole with Vermont-based Quark Expeditions, a cruise company that specializes in polar voyages. Other Arctic journeys on offer include cruises to portions of Greenland, Norway, Iceland, and the fabled Northwest Passage.

"There is nowhere else like it," Bill Davis, the vice president of operations for Quark Expeditions, told NBC News when asked to describe the allure of Arctic tourism. "It has incredible wildlife, amazing scenery, unique culture. It is very powerful."

"You will never be guaranteed you will avoid any kind of accident, but you are as safe as you can be just because you have this escort available."

The Arctic is also a challenging place to operate, which has heightened concerns about the risk of an oil spill. "There're not a lot charts, you've got a lot of fog, have a lot of icebergs," Brigham said. "It may not be ice covered, per se, but lots of icebergs. So how do you evaluate the risk which is the frequency, probability of it at all happening? It may not happen, but if it does, there isn't the attended infrastructure."

Oil spill response infrastructure needed

The rise in shipping activity is largely driven by global climate change "which is making waters accessible that have never been accessible before," Martha Grabowski, an expert on risk assessment in marine transportation at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, NY, told NBC News. She chaired a recent National Research Council report calling for enhanced infrastructure to support Arctic oil spill response.

"Because oil spill response in the Arctic is complex and because of the lack of infrastructure and the difficulty of deploying those resources, it would be challenging" to effectively respond should disaster strike today, she said.

The report calls for beefed up organizational protocols and training as well as investment in deep water ports and nuclear icebreakers, which can crush through sea ice up to ten feet thick. The bigger ticket items, Grabowski said, could potentially be financed through revenues generated by oil and gas companies operating on leased federal lands.

Davis said he is confident that Quark Expeditions is already well prepared for an oil spill or other emergency situation.

"Each ship has their own safety management plan according to international regulations and we carry different types of equipment such as booms to control spills," he noted. In addition, the company regularly participates in disaster response drills and is plugged into a ship tracking system run by a network of expedition and cruise operators so that its vessels' locations are always known.

The safety net for Tschudi's operations comes from the Russian government's requirement that its nuclear icebreakers accompany all ships that navigate the Northern Sea Route. The ships not only break ice, they are fully equipped for emergency response and can tow a fully laden, 100,000-ton ship to safety.

"You are in a remote area, but you are safeguarded by very heavy equipment and by people that have been sailing up there for generations," Henrik Falck, a project manager for Tschudi, told NBC News. "So, you will never be guaranteed you will avoid any kind of accident, but you are as safe as you can be just because you have this escort available."

"It has incredible wildlife, amazing scenery, unique culture. It is very powerful."

Brigham, who served as a reviewer of the National Research Council report, said the real concern is that Arctic nations' oil spill response plans are failing to keep up with the rise in traffic.

"If you follow this through the precautionary principle, we might have had everything in place — all kinds of response infrastructure before we had (oil and gas) leases," he said. "But that, of course, wasn't the case."

Traffic reality check

Compared to the more than 13,000 ships that sail through the Panama Canal and nearly 18,000 that transit the Suez Canal each year, the total amount of traffic in the Arctic today is tiny — around 480 ships transited the Bering Strait in 2013, for example. But the volume of traffic has increased about 50 percent in 4 years and is expected to continue to rise as the navigation season extends, Grabowski noted.

The summer extent of Arctic sea ice is on a long-term downward trend due to global climate change. The dwindling ice, in turn, makes the region's resources more accessible to world markets.

"The season of navigation is longer, but it isn't the sea ice retreat that is driving the shipping," Brigham said. "It is the actual what are you carrying and are those commodities wanted and sought from around the world. And I guess the answer is a very clear yes."

That's the bet Tschudi is making, according to Falck. "Increased activity along the Northern Sea Route will mean increased possibilities for our port facilities in northern Norway," he said.

But, he added, the company does not see a huge potential for trans-Arctic shipping. For one, the route is simply too far north for most of the world's major shippers. With the exception of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, for example, the Panama Canal is the faster route to Europe from the United States. Nor would it ever make sense for ship traffic out of the Southern Hemisphere.

"What we will see is what we call destinational shipping — the shipping that is going in and out of destinations along the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast," Falck said. "And there we see a substantial potential because there are some new developments especially within oil and gas that will require an enormous amount of logistics both in the construction phase and in the production phase."