Maritime traffic boost anticipated in Arctic

Forecast is for up to 377 vessels transiting the area by 2030

Unprecedented temperature changes are expected to prompt growth of maritime activity in the U.S Arctic, with the most plausible scenario estimating that 377 vessels could be traveling there by 2030, representing a near 50 percent boost over current levels.

The latest projection of maritime activity in the U.S. Arctic Region, 2020-2030, produced by the U.S. Committee on the Marine Transportation System, provides detailed information about how vessel activity in the U.S. Arctic may continue to change over the next decade.

It notes that the navigation season for the Bering Strait grew from 159 days in 2016 to 180 days in 2018, as measured by vessel presence, and that was a 200 percent increase in traffic from 2008 levels.

Other report highlights include Arctic waters around the Bering Strait transitioning from having a mix of regional operators to an increasingly diverse and international set of operators and waterways users, with the number of unique vessel flag states increasing by 28 percent in recent years. Coastal waters in the Bering Strait remain some of the most heavily transited in the region, the report said.

Rear Admiral Tim Gallaudet, chair of the CMTS Coordinating Board, said the report provides CMTS partners and stakeholders with critical and timely information about potential changes     facing in the U.S. Arctic’s rapidly changing environment to support a safe and secure marine transportation system.

Over the last decade alone, the number of vessels operating in waters north of the Bering Strait around the Chukchi and Beaufort seas has increased by 128 percent and is now 2.3 times larger than the number of ships passing through the region in 2008, the report said. These vessels have been engaged in a variety of activities, including natural resource exploration and extraction, commercial shipping, oceanographic research and tourism in waters which previously were plied only by ships resupplying remote communities along sparsely populated coastlines of western and northern Alaska.

While the report does not make policy recommendations, its findings highlight some implications of increasing use of the region without continued and corresponding development of the groundwork to support evolving vessel activity.

This effort to update the CMTS report of 2015 focused on drivers of vessel activity in the Arctic.

Participants from government agencies, the shipping industry, academia and the Arctic region who were assembled for a CMTS technical workshop in November 2018 provided much data on vessel growth, as well as new perspectives, about how non-quantifiable factors may affect vessel activity in the region.

U.S. Coast Guard data shows that after Royal Dutch Shell PLC (Shell) withdrew from offshore exploration in 2015 that growth in the region slowed but did not stall.

The report noted that despite limited growth in the total number of ships using these waters from 2015-to 2017 that the length of the navigation season has been growing by as much as seven to 10 days annually. Extrapolated out over the next decade, the navigation season in and around the Bering Strait may extend 2.5 months longer than present, potentially upending the region’s highly seasonal navigation, the report said.

The report cites nine drivers of Arctic vessel activity, including natural resources and improved technology and operations to changing geopolitics, regulatory changes, changing fuel landscape and infrastructure. CMTS noted that scaling all growth up or down according to a single indicator would oversimplify the complex dynamics of the region.

The final report, released Oct. 16, is online at cmts.gov/downloads/CMTS_2019_Arctic_Vessel_Projection_Report.pdf.

The CMTS is an interdepartmental maritime policy coordinating committee, established in 2005, to periodically assess the marine transportation system, integrate that system with other modes of transportation and the environment, and to establish and maintain a partnership for interagency engagement in support of that system.