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The Arctic Shipping Internet Game

The Arctic is ripe for the spread of disinformation. Few people have been there, and they have no source but the internet to gain knowledge.”

Written by Captain David (Duke) Snider Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
Duke 1026 2295
An icebreaker clears the way through Arctic sea ice.Captain David (Duke) Snider

When I was a kid, we played a game called “telephone.” One person would write down a phrase and then whisper it into the ear of the child beside him. That person would then whisper to the next, and so on, until the last person, who would announce what he had heard. By then the message was usually distorted, which brought us all to laughter.

With today’s texts, tweets, retweets and forwards, it seems as though the world is sometimes caught in a horrendous game of telephone. Truths are distorted, erroneous assumptions perpetuated and hearsay is turned into what many believe is fact. The message roaring through the digital world becomes unrecognizable from the truth.

What does this mean to an ice mariner like me? The answer is quite simple. I’ve been on the front lines of polar shipping, working north of 60° on board ships, alongside thousands of others who work and live there. I know how Arctic shipping works, and I bristle at the sometimes shocking misinformation disseminated by well-meaning but otherwise ignorant “interested parties” and individuals. Even reputable news services will sometimes publish false or inaccurate information propagated deliberately by those with agendas.

The Arctic is ripe for the spread of this disinformation. Few people around the globe have been there, and they have no source but the internet to gain knowledge.

I have been involved directly in Arctic shipping, ashore and afloat, for more than 30 years. I have sailed on Coast Guard icebreakers, commercial cargo vessels, research ships and others in the Arctic. Not once or twice, but hundreds of times. I have helped plan and execute voyages, and examined the feasibility of port developments and shipping routes. I have seen the natural cycles of “good” and “bad” ice years, the wax and wane of shipping economic cycles, and the slow progression of the effects of global climate change. What I see is often at odds with news reports. Here are four of the most persistent myths:

Myth 1: Global climate change has totally opened up the Arctic with ice-free summers

Let me be clear, I am not a climate change disbeliever. I see the effects. Things are changing. But wild proclamations of ice-free seas in the immediate future, leading to a Wild West of uncontrolled, environmentally disastrous, polluting ships cruising about the Arctic is far from reality.

The navigational season, the period of time during which non-ice class or light ice class vessels can operate safely, has been gradually increasing since I began working in the Arctic. But underlying that slow change are the well documented 11-year cycles of sea ice, during which sea ice extent increases and decreases. There are years with more sea ice and years with less sea ice, and these cycles repeat in a predictable way – for the most part.

Last year, the sea ice off the east coast of Baffin Island stayed much longer than in previous years, delaying the resupply shipments to communities by many weeks. This winter, it’s clear that the sea ice has not grown to the extent that was considered the “norm” since satellites began tracking it in the 1970s. Its breakup has also started earlier this year than in past years. Regardless, for several decades into the future, Arctic sea ice will still be present, and ships can expect to encounter it.

Myth 2: The Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route are becoming Arctic highways

Traffic in the Arctic is on the rise, but the increase is incremental. Most commercial transit voyages (those that actually navigate the entire length of the Northwest Passage or Northern Sea Route) continue to be expeditionary. They are testing the waters – proving a point – and tend to be one-off voyages preceded by extensive planning. That doesn’t sound like a highway drive to me.

Several years of planning and preparation have gone into the upcoming voyage of the cruise ship Crystal Serenity through the Northwest Passage. The company has said it will do another voyage in 2017, but it will also be prefaced by extensive preparations.

Shipping companies are not flocking to either passage. On the whole, the variability of ice conditions can cause diversions and delays that liner operations do not tolerate well. But destinational traffic – the type of shipping that moves natural resources from mines and oil wells to refining facilities or sends supplies into Arctic communities – is on the rise.

Highways across the Arctic? There are still too many risks and possible diversions or delays inherent in ice operations for these routes to appeal to most shippers.

Myth 3: Shipping’s Wild Cowboys are roaring through the Arctic, heedlessly polluting, damaging the environment and destroying the lives of local populations

If cowboys exist in the Arctic, they are the adventurers in small vessels in pursuit of another achievement. I have seen some amazingly insane attempts to conduct passages through or even voyages in the Arctic. Some are naïve to the dangers; others are there because of them. It’s that mentality that drives people to try to cross the Northwest Passage astride jet skis.

In contrast, ship operations are conducted day in and day out by highly experienced Arctic ship owners and operators, crewed by experienced Arctic mariners. Even new or prospective operators will spend tremendous amounts of time and money examining the feasibility of an Arctic operation, outfitting ships, engaging Arctic shipping specialists and training personnel.

Some ships have experienced incidents in the Arctic, but far less than what occurs elsewhere. There are fewer incidents per ship-hour of voyage in the Arctic than in more temperate waters. Recent insurance figures claimed large increases in reportable incidents in Arctic waters, but one has to look at the whole picture. The statistics included the massive – and dangerous – sub-Arctic Bering Sea fishery, which led the numbers to spike. When covering statistics, it’s important to include absolute numbers, as the percentage increase can be misleading. The number of ships operating in true Arctic waters is small. A small increase in incidents appears larger when reported as a percentage.

Myth 4: There have been no effective regulations covering Arctic shipping. Now the Polar Code will solve/not solve all these problems

Coastal state regulations and guidance governing ship operations in the Arctic have existed for decades. Russia and Canada have had very restrictive regulations in place. Canada’s Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act and Regulations have existed since the early 1970s and are regularly reviewed and updated. Russia’s regulations, including Rules for Ships Operating in the Northern Sea Route, are as strict, and the shipping regulations for the U.S. and Norway are not far behind.

I have been closely involved with the International Maritime Organization’s deliberations over the Polar Code since the mid-1990s. I helped develop the Ice Navigator training and qualification standards submitted by Canada in the mid-90s. Most recently, I served as the Nautical Institute’s NGO delegate to the IMO in many of the Polar Code-related sessions that led to the creation of the incoming Polar Code.

I’m happy that the Polar Code exists and that it will be globally mandatory, but it is a shadow of the earlier drafts. Still, it is a start in the global harmonization of polar shipping regulation. Although the preceding coastal state regulations often had tougher provisions than those of the Polar Code, the Polar Code is a necessary step forward. I hope future revisions and amendments will build on its initial iteration. As with all international shipping instruments, the Polar Code is a living document; the IMO accepts that perfection rarely occurs, and it intends to update the Polar Code as knowledge and capability changes.

The past, present and future of Arctic shipping is not unregulated, environmentally suspect, inherently dangerous and full of money-grabbing opportunists. Experienced mariners operate ships in the Arctic with tremendous oversight from national and regional regulators. The ships are designed for the conditions, and operated and managed by experienced Arctic mariners and owners. There will be outliers, but that is true in all industries.

Global climate change is affecting the operating environment, and we must be aware of that and adapt to it. We must continue to evolve our local and international oversight. But please, don’t leap to “sky is falling” assumptions, and do not misquote, make loose interpretation or simply repost “news” items as fact, without more research and verification. I wait with interest to see how long it takes for this comment to be reposted, misquoted or misinterpreted.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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