A Bering Strait Vessel Traffic Service: Critical Infrastructure for an Opening Arctic (Part I)

by Olin Strader Nations and multi-national corporations are positioning themselves to take full advantage of the Arctic’s Northwest Passage (NWP) and Northern Sea Route (NSR). However, there is every little safety infrastructure in place to ensure incident-free transit. Both of these Sea Lines of Communication terminate in the Bering Strait, the gateway to the Arctic. In this critical water space it is essential the United States and Russia begin considering how to manage traffic through this strategic choke point. 

In September 2011 Prime Minister Putin announced at the second International Arctic Forum in Arkhangelsk, Russia’s “intention to turn the NSR into a key transport route of global importance”. PM Putin further said, “We believe that NSR has a bright future as an international transport artery capable of being a competitor to more traditional routes, both when it comes to price, safety and quality”.[1] Subsequently, Russia has announced it intends to build ten Arctic rescue centers, develop a new Arctic rescue ship, develop military ice-capable transports and construct new icebreakers to replace its aging fleet.

The Arctic, as observers know, is on the verge of historic change and with it mustcome the aids to navigation and safety infrastructure to ensure shipping can be conducted safely and with the reasonable prospect of rescue in the event of a major disaster. No place is more critical to safety in the Arctic than the confined waters of the Bering Strait. Therefore, what is needed is a Bering Strait Vessel Traffic Service (VTS) to mitigate risk associated with increased shipping. The Norwegians have a VTS at Vardø on the northern tip of Norway that could serve as a model for the Bering.[2]

According to the Norwegian Oceanic Vessel Traffic Management Services handbook, the Norwegian Coastal Administration’s missions are fourfold: Coastal Management, Maritime Safety, Maritime Transport and Emergency preparedness in case of acute pollution. Recognizing the Barents Sea is a financially productive water space representing three of Norway’s largest industries: oil, gas and fisheries, it is incumbent on Norway to manage maritime traffic to prevent accidents that could threaten their livelihood.[3] The US and Russian Federation economic zones in the Bering Strait are just as vulnerable as Norway’s.

The Bering Sea is an economic boon for Alaska. According to the State of Alaska’s 2010 State Economic Trends “more than 50 percent of all fish harvested in the U.S. comes from Alaska and accounts for more than 50 percent of basic private-sector employment in many of [Alaska’s] coastal communities”.[4] The Bering Sea is a significant contributor to Alaska’s fishing industry. Meanwhile, shipping and the risk of a maritime disaster is increasing in the Bering Strait with each passing year a VTS is not established.

Reasonable observers would conclude it is high time the United States and the Russian Federation initiate a dialogue on the need for a Bering Strait VTS due to increases in vessel traffic through the Strait during the lengthening summer months and the need to prevent a major shipping disaster. United States Coast Guard figures from 2008 to 2010 show an increase in Bering Strait transits from 245 to 325.[5] However, as the recent Nome gas resupply effort has demonstrated, winter months may no longer preclude Arctic shipping.

Meanwhile, the Russian Federation continues to increase throughput along the NSR.As the Barents Observer reported in late January 2012, “This year’s season on the NSR was special in many ways. Not only was the route accessible about one month longer than usual, but it also had the highest number ever of vessels in transit from Murmansk to another country”.[6] In a more recent Barents Observer article, Gazprom and Sovcomflot´s executives suggested “the relevance of LNG shipping along the NSRto the Asian-Pacific region [is] growing quickly”.[7] Clearly then, the Russian Federation expects to make the NSR a viable option between northern Pacific ports and northern Atlantic ports. There are dissenters who would suggest Arctic shipping will not be as safe and profitable as Russian Federation leaders would suggest. In a recent Insurance Journal article entitled, “Arctic Ice Melt Lifts Hopes for Russian Maritime Trade”, authors Albina Kovalyova & Alissa de Carbonnel opined, “industry analysts and mariners say ice floes, narrow straits, shallow waters, poor infrastructure and stormy winters continue to loom as obstacles to safe and profitable shipping through the polar shortcut”.[8]

Notwithstanding, Russia continues to demonstrate that the NSR is a viable shipping route. Two years ago the Russian Federation announced it would send five vessels of different classes through the NSR as a proof of principle, meeting the mark. They then publicly stated they would increase that number fivefold. This year reportedly 34 vessels transited the NSR. If increases were to continue at current calculations, within five years, however unlikely, transits would exceed over one hundred thousand.

Regardless of how many vessels actually transit the route in coming years, the Russian Federation’s fulfillment of their stated goals should lead observers, and especially policy makers, to believe the NSR will become a major Sea Line of Communication in the not too distant future.

Returning to the topic at hand, there are essentially two types of VTSs, manned and unmanned. The Vardø VTS is manned due to the heavy traffic that transits along Norway’s West coast and the need to safeguard critical state enterprises. Whereas, the few number of ships currently transiting the Bering Strait today may make it feasible to have an unmanned VTS until vessel traffic warrants an upgrade. An unmanned system would likely be monitored remotely both from Russia and the United States, using sensors to track and control Bering Strait traffic. Additionally, a traffic separation plan must be submitted and approved by the International Maritime Organization (IMO). For example, should north bound traffic transit east of Little Diomede Island and southbound traffic transit west of Big Diomede? These are details that must be negotiated between the United States and the Russian Federation.

Clearly gas and oil traffic are expected to increase in the near-term, evidenced by Shell’s CEO Peter Voser’s 31 January Fox Business interview. "For us the focus is in Alaska and to some extent in Greenland, although in the coming years there may also be opportunities in Russia," stated Voser.[9]  Shell is not the only company expecting to 
profit from Arctic oil and gas.  Norway’s Statoil, Total, ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips are all set to exploit the reported 90 billion barrels of oil, up to 50 trillion cubic meters of natural gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids that the 2008 US Geological Survey suggests are in the Arctic.  Therefore, it is essential to mitigate the accompanying risk of increased Bering Strait vessel traffic by resourcing a VTS. 

Part II can be found here.

[1] Barents Observer, “Putin sees bright future for Arctic transport”, accessed at: http://www.barentsobserver.com/putin-sees-bright-future-for-arctic-transport.4963803-16149.html
[2] Norwegian Coastal Administration, The Vardø Vessel Traffic Service, accessed at: http://www.kystverket.no/Documents/Om%20Kystverket/Brosjyrer/Vard%C3%B8VTSbrosjyre_EN_HR.pdf
[3] The FishSite.com, “Norway Fishery Products Annual Report 2007” accessed at: http://www.thefishsite.com/articles/344/norway-fishery-products-annual-report-2007
[4] Brynn Keith, State Economic Trends: November 2010 (Juneau: Alaska Department of Labor andWorkforce Development, 2010), 3. accessed at: http://labor.alaska.gov/trends/nov10.pdf
[5] Rear Admiral Chris C. Colvin, “USCG District-17 Arctic Brief” (Slide 5), accessed at: http://www.uscg.mil/d17/Arctic%20Overview%20Feb2011.pdf
[6] Barents Observer, “34 vessels in transit on NSR”, accessed at: http://www.barentsobserver.com/34-vessels-in-transit-on-northern-sea-route.4991248.html
[7] Barents Observer, “Testing out LNG on NSR”, accessed at: http://www.barentsobserver.com/testing-out-lng-on-northern-sea-route.5013956-117495.html
[8] Albina Kovalyova and Alissa de Carbonnel, Insurance Journal, “Arctic Ice Melt Lifts Hopes for Russian Maritime Trade”, accessed at: http://www.insurancejournal.com/news/international/2012/01/27/233056.htm
[9] Fox Business, “Shell CEO Says Arctic Focus on Alaska, Greenland”, accessed at: http://www.foxbusiness.com/news/2012/01/31/shell-ceo-says-arctic-focus-on-alaska-greenland/#ixzz1l6aFgR8n
[10] Norwegian Coastal Administration, The Vardø Vessel Traffic Service, accessed at: http://www.kystverket.no/Documents/Om%20Kystverket/Brosjyrer/Vard%C3%B8VTSbrosjyre_EN_HR.pdf