Melting ice leads to major increase in Arctic shipping

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Icebreaker towing cargo ship through thick ice-field. Panoramic image made from 8 photos.

Shipping in the Arctic grew by 25% between 2013 and 2019, according to the Arctic Council.

In its first Arctic Shipping Status Report, the Arctic Council said the increase was caused by increasing Arctic tourism and “changing environmental, societal and economic patterns”.

Specifically, it pointed to thinning ice, which has given ships access for longer periods and opened up regions which were previously difficult to reach.

Not only are more ships accessing the Arctic but voyages are also lasting longer. The total distance sailed in 2019 was 9.5 million nautical miles, up from 6.51 million nautical miles in 2013.

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The majority were fishing vessels but there was an increase in other types, in particular cargo ships and icebreakers.

The Arctic has become an area of particular interest for the maritime industry as it has the potential to transform global trade by cutting voyage times between East and West.

The majority of the region is within Russia’s sovereign territory and the Russian government has been trying to promote it as a viable shipping alternative.

In January 2020, Russia unveiled an infrastructure plan containing more than 80 initiatives to help shippers that wish to use the region. These included building a fleet of icebreakers and vessels that could be operated in the region’s thickest ice.

The commercial benefits are clear, however there are significant concerns over the detrimental affect using the region could have on wildlife and the environment, as demonstrated in the above technical paper.

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