Future Gridlock in Arctic Waters?

2019-11-12T13:11:15+00:00 November 12, 2019|
(Click to enlarge) The U.S. Coast Guard Healy Class Icebreaker HEALY sits in the ice, about 100 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, in order to allow scientists onboard to take core samples from the floor of the Arctic Ocean on June 18, 2005. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard/DoD)

(Click to enlarge) The U.S. Coast Guard Healy Class Icebreaker HEALY sits in the ice, about 100 miles north of Barrow, Alaska, in order to allow scientists onboard to take core samples from the floor of the Arctic Ocean on June 18, 2005. (Credit: U.S. Coast Guard/DoD)

From: Ocean News Weekly/ By: Ocean Leadership Staff 

What It Was

The United States Committee on the Maritime Transport System (CMTS) and the Congressional Arctic Caucus held a briefing titled “A Ten-Year Projection of Maritime Activity in the U.S Arctic Region, 2020-2030,” to present their new report of the same name.

Why It Matters

The Arctic region presents environmental, economic, and national security opportunities as well as challenges for the United States and other polar countries. As the area experiences temperature increases at more than twice the rate of the global average and uses of the region are changing, the CMTS updated their 2015 report on Arctic maritime operations to reexamine vessel activity. The report is key because predicting vessel traffic is integral to waterway safety.

Key Points

To inform federal partners for civilian operations and get a better sense of this maritime domain, the report sought to accomplish three objectives: determine drivers of activity, summarize past and present vessel activity, and make traffic projections for the coming decade. Research focused on characterizing maritime transportation in the region north of the Bering Strait around the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, but did not seek to make budget or policy recommendations.

CMTS identified four main drivers of activity: natural resources, planned infrastructure development, additions to the global Arctic fleet, and seasonal rerouting of vessel traffic. CMTS staff explained that, as demand grows and access to natural resources in the Arctic gets easier, vessels transporting or supporting operations such as oil and gas extraction, mining, and liquefied natural gas extraction will increase in volume. Likewise, infrastructure projects, including community relocation, port development, offshore wind construction, and reconstruction of roads and airports could increase demand for construction materials that must be shipped in. Also, the addition of vessels to the existing Arctic fleet, including Polar Security Cutters and recreational cruise ships, and greater use of the Bering Strait’s Northern Sea Route or Northwest Passage to reroute vessels for decreased transit time would increase traffic.

Using automatic identification system (AIS) data and other historical data sets, researchers sought to characterize vessel activity by who, where, and when operations and navigation were occurring. They determined that vessel composition was becoming less regionally focused and more indicative of global maritime transporting systems, with an increased number of international users and a mixture of vessel types, from cargo and tugs to research, tourism, and tankers. The number one country of registration for vessels in the study area was the United States, followed by Russia. Additionally, the navigation season is getting increasingly longer, increasing by 10 days each year between 2016 and 2018.

The report also projected what traffic may look like in the region until 2030. All the tested scenarios combining potential sources of growth predicted increased and sustained growth in vessel traffic, largely due to natural resource activities and seasonally rerouted vessels from other transoceanic routes. Despite these findings, the report also suggested the Arctic may experience a period of slower growth of vessel activity in the coming decade. They identified several factors as potentially limiting to growth: lack of infrastructure and investment as well as regulatory and operational uncertainty. CMTS staff explained they found spikes in growth when there was investment in infrastructure and noted that even with current traffic levels, ports are already limiting entrance due to lack of space. Additional analysis is needed based on reliance on AIS data, which do not include small subsistence hunting and other vessels or distinguish clearly between all types of activity.

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