Climate change is rapidly melting Arctic sea ice, resulting in a longer shipping season and greater access to this region than ever before. Over the past decade, vessel traffic has more than doubled. Yet the Canadian Arctic – and, in particular, its archipelago – is one of the most challenging, hazardous and remote shipping environments in the world.

In some places, shipping corridors are very close to critical habitat areas or share narrow passages with local boaters, wildlife and hazardous ice floes. Innovative approaches are needed to manage vessel traffic, protect marine habitat and improve safety measures.


Arctic Shipping: Benefits and Risks

Shipping is an important and cost-effective mode of transportation for coastal Arctic communities. With the exception of Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk, no Arctic communities have year-round road access. Ships are essential for delivering seasonal provisions, fuel and other supplies to local communities, as well as to industrial projects, research sites and military installations. The ocean is also an important highway for local residents who travel over sea ice or by boat to go camping and harvesting.

Yet increased shipping poses serious risks to the Arctic ecosystem, already vulnerable due to the dramatic changes brought by climate change. Remoteness, extreme weather conditions, poor charting, limited infrastructure, new or inexperienced operators and spotty communications can endanger human lives and the environment. A major oil spill, an ill-timed icebreaking voyage, the introduction of invasive species or repeated noise disturbance could have devastating effects on marine mammals, seabirds or fish. For northern communities, protecting these natural resources is critical to maintaining their culture and way of life.

Arctic Shipping Is on the Rise

Climate change continues to reduce the amount of summer sea ice, breaking records year after year. For shipping companies, this means greater access to Arctic waters for longer periods each year. The result is a steady increase in vessel traffic that is expected to continue into the foreseeable future.

This trend is driven primarily by three specialized activities:

  • Resource extraction – Mining projects in remote areas of the Canadian Arctic rely on massive ships to deliver fuel and supplies and transport products to market. New resource extraction projects are expected to result in dramatic increases of industrial traffic in certain corridors.
  • Tourism – The mystical allure of the Arctic and renewed interest in the Northwest Passage are bringing more tourists and adventurers to these remote northern waters. Without adequate infrastructure, oversight and other guidelines, these operations can be dangerous, create environmental risks and significantly disrupt community life in northern communities.
  • Research – Scientific research is critical for understanding and managing the impact of climate change in the Arctic. More in-depth information is needed about these dramatic environmental shifts. This has led to significant increases in research-related vessel traffic.

The luxury cruise ship Crystal Serenity near Mittimatalik (Pond Inlet), Nunavut.

A Remote and Extreme Environment

The Arctic may seem more accessible than ever before, but it remains an extremely hazardous place. Severe storms, multiyear ice floes, uncharted shoals and vast distances can quickly overwhelm an underprepared mariner. Ships venturing into these waters encounter:

  • Remoteness – Operators need to be prepared for all contingencies and emergencies because help may be days away, if available at all. For example, there is no capacity to respond to major oil spills.
  • Limited infrastructure and services – For most communities, gravel beaches are the main infrastructure for receiving small vessels and offloading cargo. Port services, robust communications networks and waste reception facilities are not available. Other types of infrastructure, such as aids to navigation, anchoring points, wharfs and bollards and icebreaking service, are few and far between. Investments are badly needed to address these longstanding deficits.
  • A highly variable and poorly charted seafloor – Large areas of the Canadian Arctic seafloor have not been surveyed to modern standards. In shallow and narrow channels throughout the Arctic archipelago, poor bathymetric information puts ships at risk of running aground. In 2010, both a passenger vessel and a tanker ran aground in shallow passages through the Kitikmeot Region. The Exxon Valdez met this fate in Alaska in 1989, causing a massive oil spill.
  • Multiyear ice floes – Multiyear ice is the most dense and dangerous ice hazard for ships. As sea ice melts in the central Arctic Ocean, open water allows multiyear ice to drift through the channels of the Arctic archipelago. Scientists expect to see more of these ice floes as a result of climate change.
  • Severe weather events – Quickly changing weather patterns can force ships to seek refuge. Climate change is expected to increase weather-related risks. Freeze-up dates are occurring later in the fall, prompting shipping companies to push their operations into shoulder season, when severe storms are more frequent. Responding to a serious incident in late fall would be extremely difficult.

Protecting Vulnerable Ecosystems

An important concept is the idea of “hot spots,” or specific areas where some shipping activities are incompatible with the environment.

One of these hot spots is Canada’s Arctic archipelago. The archipelago is made up of 94 large islands and 36,469 small islands covering a total of 1.4 million square kilometres. In some areas, ships navigating around these islands are forced to share channels with local boats, marine mammals, fish and ice floes. Critical habitat for marine mammals, birds and other wildlife overlaps with, or is very close to, key shipping corridors.

Arctic ecosystems have predictable seasonal shifts that provide critical habitat for wildlife, seabirds and fish. Vessel traffic at the wrong time and place can be very damaging. Regulations are needed to protect hot spots from incompatible maritime activities.

Seasonally Sensitive Wildlife Areas

Some of these seasonally sensitive areas to be avoided include shorelines where walrus haul out in large numbers, calving areas for whales, bird nesting spots and ice habitat for seals, polar bears and other wildlife.

Local Indigenous people and scientists are experts in identifying these special areas and understanding their sensitivities. It is the responsibility of the federal government, on behalf of all Canadians, to integrate this knowledge into the management of Arctic shipping. That will ensure protection for the fragile marine environment and prevent the disruption of important traditional activities, such as hunting.

Rigorous Standards Needed for Arctic Shipping

The risks inherent in northern shipping mean that serious Arctic operators are highly specialized and have impressive credentials. The federal government imposes some of the world’s highest safety standards on large commercial vessels, requiring operators to:

  • Use experienced ice navigators
  • Use specially constructed vessels
  • Submit voyage plans for approval
  • Report to the Coast Guard throughout their voyage
  • Engage in a rigorous and multilayered regulatory regime

Our Approach

Oceans North is working with Inuit organizations and the federal government to promote world-class standards for environmental stewardship for vessel operators in the Canadian Arctic.

Three tenets are central to our work:

  1. Regulatory and management measures governing Arctic shipping should incorporate strong protection for ecologically sensitive areas and account for the vulnerabilities of Arctic ecosystems and wildlife.
  2. Through their land claim organizations, Inuit must be fully and formally included in Arctic shipping policy creation and implementation and in vessel management and monitoring.
  3. The authoritative, prevention-oriented safety system that currently exists for Arctic Canada must continue to evolve and mature – including through investments in local infrastructure and capacity – to meet the demands of increasing shipping.

Shipping is not a foreign concept in the Arctic – Indigenous people transported goods and travelled by boat long before Europeans arrived. What’s different today is the scale of shipping. In order to protect these waters, we must encourage thoughtful, sustainable shipping practices that will support both the industry and the people who live here.

A hunter crosses an open lead in the Inuvialuit Settlement Region, Northwest Territories.

Related Resources

What's That Sound? How Underwater Noise Hurts Arctic Wildlife

The Arctic is one of the quietest places on Earth, and beneath its frigid waters is a vibrant ecosystem filled with life. Walrus, narwhal, seals, and belugas all communicate through complex vocalizations. But more recently, there’s been a change. Ship noise affects the Arctic, its ecosystems and its communities: if you’re an animal trying to be heard in this noisy environment, it’s going to be difficult amongst ship noise. So what are we doing about it? In this new video from Oceans North, you’ll learn everything about the issue of underwater noise and its impact, and how we can work together to research and implement best practices for noise reduction in the Arctic and across Canadian waters.

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The Integrated Arctic Corridors Framework Planning for responsible shipping in Canada’s Arctic waters

The Integrated Arctic Corridors Framework proposes a comprehensive system of tiered, risk-based shipping routes, and an associated governance structure, that would integrate safe shipping, Inuit rights, and environmental protection, and provide benefit to Canada, the shipping industry, and Arctic communities.