Arctic Shipping in the Wake of Record Ice Melts

The North West Passage (NWP), the shipping route through Canada’s Arctic that would connect Europe and Asia, was once highly sought after. Then, the route was highly dangerous, unpredictable, and ultimately an economically unfeasible route. However, recent record breaking summer ice melts have opened up the possibility for ships to use the NWP, with the first commercial ship doing so in November 2008 (CBC, 2008). The result is renewed interest in the viability of the NWP (see Youtube video below), as well as concern for the possible environmental impact of increased shipping in region, due to the fragility of the Arctic ecosystem.

Arctic Shipping Routes (Mariport, 2007)

The potential environmental impacts of increased arctic shipping are numerous. Emissions of black carbon, especially, are often discussed, as after being emitted into the atmosphere by ships they settle on the ice through dry deposition, lowering the ice’s albedo, and could thus increase ice melting (T&E, 2012; Corbett et. al., 2010). The release of a number of substances into the Arctic aquatic ecosystem, where low light and temperatures slow decomposition, is also of worry (T&E, 2012). As well, due to the remoteness of the Arctic, any accidents, such as oil spills, would be difficult to contain or clean up.

In terms of Canada’s general level of preparation for an increase in Arctic shipping, it appears that much work is still to be done. In order to protect the Canadian Arctic from ships passing through, Canada will need to both offer better services, and impose a greater presence in the region. Lajeunesse (2011) offers a long list of specific shortfalls, noting that Canada requires better hydrographic mapping, search and rescue resources, navigational aids, ice breaking and forecasting services, and better surveillance and law enforcement. He also notes that changes will need to be made to the current policy and regulatory frameworks in order to effectively and sustainably manage the Arctic environment should shipping increase in the region.Seeing that change was on the horizon, Transport Canada commissioned a two phase impact assessment in 2005 (final report released in 2007). Phase I (Transport Canada, 2005) involved a scoping study to consider which possible environmental and socio-economic impacts should be included in the impact assessment. The environmental impacts considered included:

  • -Implications for air emissions;
  • -Implications of increased shipping for climate change mitigation;
  • -Impact on northern ecosystems, including marine wildlife, sensitive and protected areas, and water quality (i.e. water pollution);
  • -Increased access to natural resources, both renewable and nonrenewable;
  • -Resource development/depletion;
  • -Environmental implications of potential expansion of infrastructure;
  • -Exposure and risk factors from toxic substances associated with ships and shipping;
  • -Risk from invasive species;
  • -Risk of spills and the need for spill response capabilities associated with any shipping increase in Arctic waters;
  • -Risk from potential transport of dangerous goods in Arctic waters (e.g. toxic, infectious, radioactive, etc.);
  • -Marine weather predictions and severe weather warning services;

(Transport Canada, 2005, p. 3)

Phase II (The Mariport Group, 2007) was to examine the main issues revealed by the scoping study. A final copy of the Phase I report could not be found on the Internet, only its terms of reference, though the final portion of the project, Phase II is available. It is interesting to note that the environmental impacts were almost completely omitted from the final impact assessment report, save the impact of climate change (which was logically included, since warming is the processes allowing the increase in shipping). It states that the final assessment only partially builds on the results from the scoping study, and that issues revealed during the scoping that do not appear will be examined at a later date.

Whether it represents politics, efficiency, or some other issue, the fact that environmental issues were not included in the final report is regrettable. Doubtless, the environmental section alone would have been very extensive, but as it has been five years since the Phase II report was published, one would think that in that time the environmental portion of the impact assessment would have been completed and published. The Transport Canada website states that such studies are ongoing (Transport Canada, 2010). Comprehensive study of the potential negative environmental impacts of increased shipping in Canada’s Arctic will be essential to future planning or regulatory changes. As well, the continued acceleration of summer ice melting suggests that such studies are very urgently needed, if decision makers are to make fully informed decisions.


Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). (2008). 1st commercial ship sails through Northwest Passage. Retrieved October 16, 2012 from

Corbett, J.J. et. al. (2010). Arctic shipping emissions inventories and future scenarios. Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, 10, 9690-9704.

European Federation for Transport and Environment (T&E). (2012). Troubled waters: How to protect the Arctic from the growing impact of shipping. Retrieved October 16, 2012 from

Lajeunesse, Adam. (2011). A New Mediterranean? Arctic Shipping Prospects for the 21st Century. International Centre for Northn Governance and Development, University of Saskatchewan, Occasional Papers, 11(01), 4-16. Retrieved October 16, 2012 from

The Mariport Group Ltd. (2007). Canadian Arctic Shipping Assessment: Main Report. Prepared for Transport Canada. Retrieved October 16, 2012 from

Transport Canada. (2005). Terms of Reference: Arctic Shipping Impact Assessment – Scoping Study. Retrieved October 16, 2012 from

Transport Canada. (2010). Climate Change and Its Impacts on Shipping. Retrieved October 16, 2012 from


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