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Port Notes - Shrinking Ice, Expanding Routes

From the desk of Captain Jeffrey Monroe, MM, AMPE


Over the next several weeks, we will explore what is happening in the Arctic Region and how commercial shipping and port development may be impacted. Stay tuned.

The world of shipping has long been intrigued by the possibility of transiting the high north to connect Europe and Asia. Recent changes to the polar ice pack as a result of climate change are opening new prospective routes through the high north. These new northern shipping routes would allow for expanded commercial passage of vessels between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans and, ultimately, better connections between Asia and Europe. Two principal routes have emerged and seen some sporadic use in recent years by a variety of vessels: including both commercial shipping vessels and cruise ships. Speculation on the importance of emerging northern routes is rampant, with some claiming that these emerging routes will represent a major shift in intercontinental shipping. However, the question remains: how relevant will these emerging routes become?

For most of the year, Arctic sea ice covers more than 2,100 nautical miles of the ocean. However, during the summer months, the ice pack thins, leaving open expanses of ocean that are increasingly becoming accessible for Arctic shipping. As a result of extended seasonal thinning, more commercial vessels have begun test transits and some companies have built and continue to build new ice class vessels for cruises and commercial cargo carriage. Various companies have undertaken test transits, including transits by high end cruise ships.

The first commercial vessel to undertake a transit in the Northwest Passage was the 115,000 deadweight ton tanker SS Manhattan which took place in August 1969. The ship was equipped with a custom fitted icebreaker bow and the hull was strengthened. Since then various commercial vessels based in Germany made passages in 2009. The cruise ship CRYSTAL SERENITY sailed from Vancouver, Canada, to New York with 1,500 passengers in 2017 and has been the largest cruise ship to transit to date.

Tune in next week for the next installment in our series examining changes in the Arctic and their impact on the port industry!

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