Norwegians issue shipping warning as Arctic sea lanes open

Longer ice-free periods in the Arctic will lead to increased activity in the region within the next ten years

Melting Arctic ice is opening up new opportunities for shipping companies. (Source: pixabay/David Mark)

By Nilima Choudhury

A new polar code for maritime operations is urgently needed to preserve the environmental integrity of the Arctic Ocean, says the head of the Norwegian Shipowners Association (NSA).

Sturla Henriksen director general of the NSA told RTCC that steadily melting summer ice means increased shipping levels in the region are now inevitable.

On Wednesday the US-based National Snow and Ice Data Center revealed ice melt was accelerating, although it had not yet caught up with last year’s record.

“We need the international society to develop an infrastructure which is adequate that includes navigation, mapping of the area, communication, weather forecasting [and predicting] ice conditions,” said Henriksen. “My concern is that the ice is receding faster than the negotiations are progressing.”

Administrators of the Northern Sea Route which runs along the north coast of Russia have already granted more than 200 ships permission to sail across the route this year.

This is a huge increase on 2012, when 46 ships transporting a total of 1.3 million tons reportedly used the route, which cuts journey times from Russia to China by eight days.


Groups like Greenpeace have vehemently lobbied for the curbing of trade in the Arctic. Last month, six Greenpeace campaigners were arrested in London after scaling Europe’s tallest building to draw public attention to drilling plans of Shell.

Environmentalists concerned about threats to the Arctic people, the effects of further fossil fuel exploration on climate change and the wider impacts on what was, until recently, a pristine environment, and one that was described in Nature that the Arctic region is “pivotal” to the functioning of Earth systems such as oceans and the climate.

“The Arctic is fast becoming the new battleground where the fight to save the Arctic will be won or lost,” said Ian Duff, Greenpeace Forest Campaigner.

“A major oil spill – one as bad as BP’s Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico – is almost inevitable as long as the oil giants are allowed to operate there, posing a huge threat to Indigenous communities and polar bear populations.”


The Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum that addresses issues faced by the Arctic governments and the indigenous people of the Arctic, convened in May of this year to discuss the economic potential of the region.

The meeting, described by some attendees as lacklustre, did nothing to stifle the grievances of groups like Greenpeace and the NSA by not reaching any successful resolution on oil and gas extraction.

The next meeting of the Arctic Council is in 2015, the same year as the climate change negotiations in Paris where a legally binding treaty must be agreed to keep the world on its path to limiting global warming to 2°C.

Extra costs

A shorter route that avoids the Middle East and other shipping bottlenecks is not guaranteed to be cheaper.

Insurance companies are increasing insurance premiums according to Lloyd’s Market Association due to the severe damage to ships that could be incurred.

The LMA lists a variety of risks that could raise premiums, including oil spillages, damage to hulls from ice, navigational concerns like poor maps and GPS systems and short summer seasons which could alter well-travelled transit routes.

Andrew Bardot, secretary and executive officer from marine insurance provider International Group of P&I Clubs told RTCC that although liability insurance is not a “big issue”, insuring the actual ship could be what leads to increased premiums.

“At the moment what we the clubs are there to do is to provide liability insurance cover so if there was oil pollution we’d respond, if there was wreck that has to be removed, if there was personal loss of life we’d respond,” said Bardot.

According to a report by the University of Saskatchwan in Canada, the prices for shipping vessels in the Arctic could be as high as 150% to 300% more than for traditional sea routes.

“Both the challenges and the opportunities in the Arctic are of global significance,” said Henriksen at a conference on the Arctic.

“Nowhere else on Earth can the effects of climate change be seen more immediately and more clearly. Sustainable utilisation of the region’s resources is therefore more important here than anywhere else.”

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