The complex future of Arctic travel
Apr. 26 2023
Sailing through the Arctic has recently become a hot topic in the shipping world. As changing environmental conditions have reduced the surface area of ice banks, swaths of ocean have opened across the polar region. Routes previously considered impassable now show potential for cargo-shipping and cruise lines, and offshore operators are eyeing the Arctic’s newly accessible natural resources. New trade routes will allow ships to travel more directly, offering the possibility of lower fuel consumption over the course of their voyage.
However, the Arctic represents a unique set of challenges for vessels of all types and sizes. With temperatures plunging to -50° C in winter, equipment may freeze and malfunction, putting crew members at risk. Icebergs or ice floes may damage vessels, while foggy conditions decrease visibility and strong winds contribute to high wave loads. When sailing through remote regions, vessels are effectively on their own: if a crew member falls ill, or the ship faces an issue, it is extremely difficult to mount a long-distance rescue operation. Additionally, ships must interact carefully with the Arctic environment, ensuring the safety of wildlife and minimizing pollution.
Polar-proofing your vessel
Shipowners and shipyards eager to take advantage of Arctic transportation are seeking design and operational solutions that will allow their vessels to navigate icy, sub-zero waters. Class societies like Bureau Veritas provide assessments against regulations to determine a ship’s fitness for polar waters, including operational assessments, stability calculations and ship structural equivalency analyses.
Arctic-going ships are built to particular specifications, designed to include thicker hulls, additional scantlings, and improved heating arrangements for fuel and ballast tanks. Vessels can be fitted with ice-breaking capability, in the case of collision with ice floes or icebergs. Technical experts have also developed tools to evaluate ice force and stress on propeller blades, which some vessels use to cut ice in their path.
Technical Director of Oil & Gas
Ice and Polar class vessels are highly specialized in terms of design, equipment and operation. They are built to withstand harsh Arctic conditions, which entails a strong degree of reinforcement for the ship frame, hull, propellers, etc. Unless your vessel will only be traveling through the Arctic during the summer – as some passenger ships do – you’ll very likely need a newbuild.
Balancing exploration and regulation
The most important regulation regarding Arctic shipping is the International Code for Ships Operating in Polar Waters (Polar Code), adopted by IMO in 2015 and entered into force in 2017. Mandatory under both the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), the Polar Code has been in force since January 1, 2017. It applies to all vessels traveling in the Arctic and Antarctic.
The Polar Code regulates vessel design and fitness for operation, while providing clear requirements for environmental protection and personnel safety.
The Code defines strict regulations for ship construction, including the materials and design that can be used (i.e., all tankers must have double hulls). Ice removal equipment is mandatory, and vessels must assure visibility in ice, snow or freezing rain.
Ships must also comply with both SOLAS and MARPOL rules to achieve Polar class notation. Vessels may not carry or burn heavy fuel oil when navigating the Arctic, and the Code forbids the discharge of oil, sewage, and chemicals.
To protect personnel, Arctic-going ships must be equipped with enclosed lifeboats and thermal clothing. Crew members are required to receive training and certification in specific seafaring skills for navigating and operating vessels in polar areas.
Creating a competitive route
One of the big debates in Arctic shipping concerns use of areas like the North Sea Route through Siberia and the Northwest Passage in Canada. For example, both the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal are heavily trafficked, and ship operators can save time and money by traveling the Northwest Passage. Operators report saving up to 10 days’ navigation and hundreds of thousands of dollars per voyage by using northern sea routes. Cruise lines have also expressed interest in organizing cruises along the passage, and some have begun building icebreaker class passenger ships.
However, opening the Northwest Passage for travel has caused controversy over dangerous sailing conditions and the potential for environmental damage. The passage is not ice-free throughout the year, making it an unreliable shipping route with the potential to damage vessels and endanger crew members. Furthermore, increased traffic in the arctic could have devastating consequences for marine and polar creatures, introducing invasive species, disrupting marine habitats and deafening underwater wildlife.
Taking on the Arctic
Bureau Veritas has been involved with Arctic projects of all varieties for over two decades.
We worked on several LNG export projects in Russia, for which icebreakers have been in operation since 2019. The size of these LNG carriers, as well as their ice-breaking ability, makes them unique among Arctic vessels.
Bureau Veritas is classing the Ponant icebreaker, the world’s first LNG-powered, hybrid-electric passenger vessel to navigate through polar waters. The ship’s innovative design surpasses Polar Code regulations for environmental protection and provides unparalleled ice-breaking ability.
Our experts are currently working on a range of other marine and offshore projects in the Arctic, including the Terra Nova FPSO, for which we provided technical assistance to Petro Canada. We have also conducted the required assessments for FSU-LNG projects in the Baltic Sea and other cold-environment areas, and are the class society of choice for a fleet of icebreakers now operating in the Caspian Sea.
The Arctic provides ample potential to improve shipping efficiency, but this opportunity requires increased responsibility. From IMO to individual flag administrations around the world, the maritime industry will have to chart a careful course between both utilizing and preserving the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
Photo Credit: Ponant
New Report Reveals The Environmental Risks of Arctic Vessels Travel, Oceanconservancy.org, June 28, 2017