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Centre for the North Blog

Shipping in a Changing Northern Climate: Where Do We Go From Here?

Jan 27, 2016
Kala Pendakur Kala Pendakur
Research Associate
Northern and Aboriginal Policy

The very climatic changes that are opening up Northern waters to exploration and shipping are the same changes that are making these activities more difficult.

Marine transportation plays a critical role in the quality of life of Canada’s Northern residents. Due to the vast distances between communities, as well as their isolation from Southern Canada, the ability to transport goods via waterways to Northerners has a direct impact on the cost of living, food security, community resilience, economic growth, safety and security, and on their ability to fully participate in the economy. Moreover, numerous economic activities and opportunities, including oil and gas exploration and development, mining, tourism, and fisheries, all rely to some degree on shipping.

However, while marine shipping is more cost-effective than air shipping, it is often hampered by a lack of port infrastructure and difficult navigation conditions. And sea and ice conditions are only getting more challenging as operators face the new realities of climate change.

The eyes of the world are on climate change. Just this past year, COP21 in Paris brought world leaders together to discuss the current and future impacts of a changing climate. As temperatures continue to warm and water conditions continue to change, a fundamental question must be asked: What is the role of individuals, organizations, and policy-makers in helping marine operators ensure efficient and safe shipping in the North?

Answering this question begins with a better understanding of the climatic changes that are occurring and their impacts on marine transportation.

A quick analysis points to several important climatic impacts. Warming temperatures have caused permafrost1 degradation, which in turn has impacted coastal infrastructure and facilities. Sea-level falls have caused navigation issues due to reduced depth under a ship’s keel, while sea-level rises have contributed to more wave action, coastal erosion, and an increase in ice movements. Out on the water, changing ice conditions combined with high winds have led to ice bunching into choke points. These are just some of the changes that operators have to deal with.

Moving forward, adaptations to vessels and marine infrastructure, as well as policy adaptations, will be key.

Companies are well aware of the dangers of shipping in the Arctic, and several organizations have carried out winter-operation risk assessments and ship-specific winterization procedures to mitigate risks. In many cases, damage to vessels can be prevented by careful route planning and operational prudence. Beyond planning, operators may have to make more active changes, such as reinforcing their ships to withstand heavy ice.

Adaptations to marine facilities will depend greatly on the unique local water conditions that communities are facing. For instance, in areas with high water levels and incidence of storm surge, or areas with high coastal erosion, it may be necessary to construct sea defence structures to limit damage. In contrast, areas with falling water levels may need to dredge harbours. This is costly; dredging operations require substantial financial resources that communities and governments may not have. An estimate of the cost to dredge a channel for Tuktoyaktuk that would allow cargo service directly via ocean vessels would exceed $100 million.2

Successful marine navigation will depend on a wide range of efforts, including a coordinated approach by federal government departments. To aid safe marine transportation, governments would need to offer services such as producing navigational charts, deploying and maintaining navigational aids, providing weather and ice information, providing ice breaking services, and surveillance and monitoring of marine traffic.

Beyond federal government support, support from organizations such as the Arctic Council, which in 2009 released the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, will be useful moving forward.3

Northerners are well aware of the climate changes that are occurring in the North, and adaptation initiatives and research at the community level will be important in addressing these changes. The adaptation practices mentioned above are by no means comprehensive. The myriad of climatic changes occurring in the North will require numerous multi-faceted adaptation practices that are researched and implemented by various organizations.

We still have a lot of work to do to better understand the challenges and opportunities occurring in Northern waters. Moving forward, government can aid marine transporters by ensuring that Canadian waters are charted accurately, ice breaking services are available, and navigation aids (such as beacons) are in place as required. A robust transportation system and strategy in the North is an economic necessity. And while challenges associated with a changing climate are inconvenient, they are not insurmountable.

We touch on some of the economic opportunities and challenges that exist in Northern waters in our report Changing Tides: Economic Development in Canada’s Northern Marine Waters, and will be discussing this topic at the upcoming 2016 Northern Lights Conference.

 

1    Permafrost is characterized as ground that stays below 0°C for a minimum of two consecutive years.

2    Det’on Cho Stantec. Change and Challenge: Climate Change Adaptation Plan for the GNWT Department of Transportation (Yellowknife: Det’on Cho Stantec, 2013).

3    Arctic Council. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report (Tromsø, Norway: Arctic Council, 2009).


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