Canada in the Arctic - Arctic Shipping: Routes, Forecasts, and Politics

This article is part 2 of a background piece about "Canada in the Arctic."

By Kathrin Keil A Canadian government report describes Canada’s northern marine environment as consisting of the Arctic Ocean, the Beaufort Sea, Hudson Bay, Foxe Basin, Baffin Bay and various channels and straits between the islands of the Arctic Archipelago. The Arctic Ocean is connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the Greenland and Norwegian Seas and by numerous channels through the Arctic Archipelago to Baffin Bay and the Labrador Sea. These waters are covered with sea ice, either seasonal or multi-year ice, which can be several metres thick. In general, the distribution and thickness of sea ice are extremely variable. Permanent pack ice occurs in the central Arctic Ocean, while open waters develop in the late summer off the west coast of Banks Island and in the Beaufort Sea. Hudson Bay freezes by the end of December and begins to clear in July. With the exception of landfast ice within the Archipelago and along coastlines, the sea ice is in constant movement.

The Canadian Arctic provides three main routes for marine shipping: one to the port of Churchill and other communities in Hudson Bay via Hudson Strait; a second to the Beaufort Sea via Bering Strait or the Mackenzie River; and a third through the Arctic Archipelago via the Northwest Passage. The Northwest Passage extends from Baffin Bay through Lancaster Sound to the Beaufort Sea via a number of alternative routes.

Winter shipping is tremendously more difficult than summer shipping. The ice is stronger and consolidated from shore to shore without the cracks that make it easier for a ship to pass through. Near-total darkness and very low temperatures make winter navigation exceedingly hazardous. Finally, multi-year ice, although receding, is still present all year around, and because it hardly softens in summer it poses a serious hazard to shipping in winter and in summer.

Despite the challenges remaining and no expectation for an ice-free Arctic in winter, the summer shipping season in Arctic Canada could be extended due to the processes of climate change. For example, shipping of raw material exports on northern routes is expected to increase. Scientific voyages to the Arctic region have increased significantly since 1990, and are frequently carried out on Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) icebreakers that also serve other roles such as navigational support and maintenance of a Canadian government presence. For example, in 2004, the CCGS Amundsen was equipped specifically to support research on the impacts of climate change in the coastal Canadian Arctic as part of the ArcticNet Network Centre of Excellence. Also tourist cruises through the Northwest Passage are becoming increasingly common.

Table 1 indicates that sea-ice duration during summer is expected to be 10 days shorter by 2020, 15-20 days by 2050 and even 20-30 days shorter by 2080. This will be possible through expected ice-free shelves by 2020, a 30-50% reduction in sea ice by 2050 from present and a 50-100% reduction by 2080. The extent of multi-year ice is expected to decrease constantly, from some reduction especially on shelves by 2020, significant loss with no multi-year ice on shelves by 2050 to little or no multi-year ice by 2080.

Table 1: Future Changes in Sea Ice Duration, Summer Sea Ice Extent and Multi-Year Sea Ice in the North American Arctic. [2]

Sea ice duration
Shorter by 10 days
Shorter by 15-20 days
Shorter by 20-30 days
Summer sea ice extent
Shelves likely to be ice free
30-50% reduction from present
50-100% reduction from present
Multi-year sea ice
Some reduction especially on shelves
Significant loss with no multi-year ice on shelves
Little or no multi-year ice

According to the above-mentioned report, the routes that will benefit the most from these changes are Hudson Bay and the Beaufort Sea because they show a very different ice regime in comparison to the rest of the Canadian Arctic, and are thus likely to see an increasing number of transits by large ships. A longer summer shipping season is expected to encourage shipping through the port of Churchill in Hudson Bay, and in the Beaufort Sea longer summer shipping seasons will increase the appeal of offshore hydrocarbon development as well as transport of oil and gas through the Bering Strait.

Although ships on these routes will see generally easier navigating conditions, processes of climate change also change the nature and severity of many risks to marine traffic. For example, rather than being confronted with an extensive ice pack that necessitates icebreaker escort, ships will be confronted will multi-year ice in low concentration that is difficult to detect, and extreme variability of conditions from one year to the next. The paradoxical situation may arise that despite decreased ice extent and ice thickness there will be a continued if not even an increasing demand for icebreaking and other navigational support for shipping activities in the north, also because of the increased traffic on some routes. 

In general, the increase in marine traffic on some Arctic routes together with more frequent and more intense hazards like more mobile ice and increased winds, waves and surges will increase the demand for marine services in the north. This includes for example updated navigational charts, up to date weather forecasts, ice reconnaissance and forecasting, icebreaking support, search-and-rescue capabilities, marine traffic surveillance, control and enforcement, ports for fuelling and cargo loading, ice-class vessels and specialised crews.

Canadian Shipping Policy

The Statement on Canada's Arctic Foreign Policy  says that “Arctic shipping is another key area of focus” in order to achieve the second aim of the Northern Strategy, which is promoting social and economic development in the North. The 2009 Strategy  reads that “[i]n 2007, satellite imaging verified that the Northwest Passage had less than 10 percent ice coverage, making it, by definition, “fully navigable” for several weeks. This was well ahead of most recent forecasts [and] in the near future, reduced ice coverage and longer periods of navigability may result in an increased number of ships undertaking destination travel for tourism, natural resource exploration or development”.

The government builds upon an extensive report on the effects of climate change on Canada from 2007, which forecasts that increased navigability of Arctic marine waters will lead to a “less ‘remote’ northern Canada” as diminishing sea ice will increase opportunities for shipping and passage within Canadian Arctic waters. This is expected to lead to the development of new infrastructure, particularly to access natural resources, which would also have far reaching socioeconomic and cultural impacts on Arctic communities from increased economic activity.

But despite the often very enthusiastic voices about the prosperous future of Arctic shipping along the Arctic routes, the Canadian government takes a rather cautious standpoint on the prospect of a thriving shipping route along the Northwest Passage in the near future. As the 2010 Statement reads: “[T]he various Canadian internal waterways known as Canada’s “Northwest Passage” are not predicted to become a viable, large-scale transit route in the near term, in part because mobile and unpredictable ice in the Passage poses significant navigational challenges and other routes are likely to be more commercially viable”. This is in line with the scientific research on the prospects of Arctic marine shipping, which indicates that the Northern Sea Route will sooner than the Northwest Passage become a viable route through northern waters.

Role of Sovereignty for Shipping

The dispute about the status of the Northwest Passage plays a prominent role in Canadian Arctic policies and is closely linked to Arctic shipping issues. Canada has in various ways in the past tried to strengthen its position in this dispute, mainly through referring to concerns about Arctic ecology and indigenous populations and concretely through the establishment of a shipping regime for the Canadian Arctic. Most prominently is the adoption of the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act in 1970 in response to increasing news about oil and gas discoveries in the Canadian Arctic, which imposed strict safety and environmental requirements on all ships within 100 nautical miles (nm) of Canada’s Arctic Coast. As Shelagh Grant writes: “Canada’s argument for anti-pollution measures rested on the moral obligation of a country with potentially vast oil and gas reserves to protect the vulnerable Arctic environment on behalf of the world community.”

The boldness of the Canadian move becomes apparent when one considers that the Act was, at that time, contrary to international law, which did not recognise coastal state rights in the waters beyond 12 nautical miles (nm). Even more, the Canadian government openly admitted that the Act was inconsistent with international law, as shortly before the adoption of the statute the government modified its general acceptance of the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in order to prevent the issue from being litigated there. Many other states, most strongly the US, protested against the Canadian move but Ottawa refused to take the Act back or submit the issue to the ICJ. The dispute only receded after the adoption of UNCLOS in 1982 when Canadian diplomats succeeded in legalising the 1970 Act in Art. 234, which allows coastal states to enact “laws and regulations for the prevention, reduction and control of marine pollution from vessels in ice-covered areas within the limits of the exclusive economic zone”, which is 200 nm. This article has since then been called the “Arctic exception”.

Canada has then also amended the ‘Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act’ to extend the application of the Act to comprise the whole Canadian exclusive economic zone (EEZ), i.e. up to 200 nm from the Canadian coastline. The Bill C-3 – an ‘Act to amend the Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act’ – came into force on 1 August 2009. As one means to strengthen the implementation of the Prevention Act in times of increasing Arctic traffic, the government amended the Canada Shipping Act turning the originally voluntary Coast Guard’s NORDREG [3] reporting system from 1977 into a mandatory reporting requirement for vessels when entering and operating within Canadian Arctic waters.

These regulations have been in force since July 2010 and they apply to all Canadian waters north of 60°. Vessels have to report information to the Canadian Coast Guard prior to entering, while operating within and upon exiting Canada’s northern waters. The Coast Guard can then provide the vessels with meteorological and navigational information, such as weather warnings and ice movement information. The aim of the mandatory NORDREG system is to ensure safe and efficient movement of marine traffic, to enhance the safety of vessels, crew and passengers and to safeguard the fragile Arctic marine environment.

The Canadian government favours a wide interpretation of Art. 234 UNCLOS, i.e. a wide discretion for coastal states to set rules unilaterally to protect the human and natural environment. As Molenaar and Corell
righty point out, the broad prescriptive and enforcement jurisdiction that Art. 234 UNCLOS confers upon coastal states is, however, only possible for a limited purpose and subject to several restrictions. One of these restrictions is of geographical character as Art. 234 UNCLOS only refers to “ice-covered areas within the limits of the exclusive economic zone, where particularly severe climatic conditions and the presence of ice covering such areas for most of the year create obstructions or exceptional hazards to navigation” (own emphasis). Decreasing sea-ice through climate change means that fewer states will be able to rely on Art. 234 UNCLOS in fewer and fewer areas.

Canada usually refers to historical arguments to bolster its sovereignty claims in the North and thus to justify moves like the Prevention Act, mainly in form of inhabitation of the High North by Inuit and other Aboriginal peoples, Canadians that moved to the North and became ‘Northerners’ as well as explorers and researchers. As the government’s Northern Strategy reads, “Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is longstanding, well-established and based on historic title, founded in part on the presence of Inuit and other Aboriginal peoples since time immemorial”.

A further argument is the necessity for strong national environmental protection of the Arctic region, which would become an increasingly important task given the dangers and risks connected to a proliferation of international shipping in the North. Such risks are, for example, the higher likelihood of environmentally harmful events such as oil spills, poaching and contamination, spread of new species and diseases, the rising possibility of shipwrecks, smuggling, illegal immigration and even threats to national security. Given the transboundary effects of environmental hazards, a strong environmental protection of the Canadian North would hereby not only be in the Canadian interest but also in the interest of all humankind. As Harper stated in 2008, “Canada takes responsibility for environmental protection and enforcement in our Arctic waters. This magnificent and unspoiled ecological region is one for which we will demonstrate stewardship on behalf of our country, and indeed, all of humanity”.

As another means to ensure, maintain and exercise its sovereignty in the North Canada believes that is has to maintain a strong presence in the region in order to have “the capability and capacity to protect and patrol the land, sea and sky in our sovereign Arctic territory” and in order to achieve this “[w]e are putting more boots on the Arctic tundra, more ships in the icy water and a better eye-in-the-sky”. In this connection the plans to foster Canada’s military activities in the High North fit in. It is against this background that the Northwest Passage issue also becomes prevalent. Although the Northwest Passage route is not expected to become a viable shipping route in the short- to mid-term future, it appears substantial for Canada’s sovereignty ambitions in the north to ensure the Arctic Archipelago as Canadian internal waters. The Canadian government should thus not have an interest in resolving the Northwest Passage dispute for reasons of increased shipping opportunities on the route – as this is rather unlikely in the foreseeable future – but surely because of the strong meaning of the status of the passage for Canada’s Arctic sovereignty policy.

[2] This includes the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas, the Canadian Archipelago, Baffin and Hudson Bays, and the Labrador Sea (Loeng, 2004: 476).
[3] NORDREG stands for ‘Northern Canada Vessel Traffic Services Zone’. Cf.