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Ships and Ice Don’t Mix

Ships and Ice Don’t Mix

August 9, 2017

This article is part of an Arctic in Context series featuring Winter 2017 Arctic Research Fellows from the International Policy Institute, in the Henry M. Jackson School at the University of Washington. This Arctic research program is dedicated to improving the transfer of research and expertise between higher education and the policy world in the area of global affairs.

By Ian Hanna

Imagine sailing on a vast open ocean with 100 miles between you and the closest small community. Help is sometimes days away, a terrifying prospect given the harsh and unforgiving environment and no nearby deep-water ports where you can seek refuge.

As sea ice disappears faster than ever, more and more ships are braving the vast, empty Arctic waters. While less ice allows for more environmental research, resource exploration, and tourism, the growth in marine traffic also means greater risks for the Arctic’s ecosystems and residents. Andrew Hartsig, director of Ocean Conservancy’s Arctic Program, said: “Given the region’s remoteness and lack of response resources, the results of a serious vessel accident—especially a large oil spill—could be catastrophic.” Reduced ice extent does not mean that the open waters hazard-free, either. There are still dangerous ice floes, and a lack of ice coverage leads to larger waves.

The increased activity in this hazardous environment compelled the Arctic Council to commission the Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME) Working Group to conduct a comprehensive traffic assessment. The Council’s 2009 report, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), was the first comprehensive assessment of shipping in the region. AMSA engaged with a broad range of stakeholders and gave special consideration to indigenous input, leaning on a report from the Inuit Circumpolar Council on the human dimensions of Arctic shipping, which shows the dependence of indigenous populations on sea ice and how shipping affects their lifestyle. PAME provided 17 recommendations for nations to prepare for increased traffic as sea ice continues to recede, with the goals of enhancing marine safety, protecting the people and the environment, and expanding marine infrastructure.

Ships and Ice Don’t Mix

Winter 2016-17 sea ice extent

The Arctic Council has published biennial implementation reports documenting the progress of each Arctic country to ensure that the AMSA recommendations are put into action. The true test of AMSA’s efficacy, however, is the influence it has on Arctic countries’ shipping policies. The examples of the United States and Canada show that even with limited success in passing sweeping laws to meet the AMSA recommendations, federal agencies are taking notice and incorporating these findings into their strategic planning on issues ranging from coastal patrols to wildlife protection.

In the United States, Representatives Don Young and Rick Larsen from Alaska and Washington quickly attempted to include AMSA recommendations into legislation, submitting bills on the floor of the House in 2009 and 2010. The 2009 bill sought to allocate $765 million over four years to the Coast Guard; the majority of the funding was to be used for building icebreakers, but $10 million was budgeted to carry out agreements that would fulfill the AMSA recommendations. The 2010 bill did not propose funding but instead asked that the Coast Guard provide an estimate of the amount of money necessary to execute the AMSA measures. While neither bill made it out of the subcommittee, they quickly raised awareness of the AMSA within the U.S. federal government.

In parallel with Congress’ efforts, in 2010 the U.S. Coast Guard launched a Port Access Route Study (updated in 2014), soliciting public comments on a vessel routing system in the Bering Sea and Bering Strait. Numerous environmental NGOs and local residents proposed restricting vessel traffic to a navigation corridor that would avert environmentally sensitive areas. The results of this study, published on Feb. 27, 2017, largely followed the commenters’ proposals, recommending a two-way navigation route that follows customary traffic patterns and noted several areas ships should avoid. As a result, the Coast Guard and the International Maritime Organization are currently considering formal regulation. Through this proposal, the U.S. government is providing significant support to AMSA recommendations through the development of an Arctic marine traffic system.

Other parts of the federal government have taken notice of the AMSA’s recommendations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also approved a Polar Bear Conservation Management plan in November 2016 that extensively references the AMSA. By law, the plan is only required to comply with provisions under the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, but because of AMSA, the USFWS decided to consider the impact of shipping in its plan.

There is a clear commitment from Canadian federal agencies to support the AMSA implementations, too. In 2009 the Standing Senate Committee on Fisheries and Oceans submitted a report on the security of Canada’s Arctic waters. Published within months of the AMSA, the report concludes that the Canadian Coast Guard should be given the money and authority to implement AMSA suggestions. The next year, the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development published a policy statement that referenced the AMSA in outlining its commitment to an international agreement for Arctic search and rescue and standards for ships operating in polar regions. The Department of Fisheries Canada also published a report in 2012 on the cross-agency Health of the Oceans initiative, repeatedly citing the AMSA. The initiative invested $725,000 in conducting the AMSA study and implementing the final recommendations. Finally, a 2014 parliamentary audit of the Coast Guard and Canadian Hydrographic Service used participation in the AMSA study as evidence of effective use of funding.

In the face of continued climate change, the Arctic Council has prioritized the pressing issue of increased shipping in the Arctic. In the few years since the AMSA was released, it appears to have had an effect on domestic policy.  The U.S. and Canada have devoted an impressive level of attention to the AMSA and, as evinced in PAME’s biennial reports, other Arctic nations are taking comparable action. Even though few regulations have been established formally, the report has put shipping issues on the radar of governments in the region. Arctic states must now continue to aggressively support the implementation of the AMSA recommendations in an effort to prevent major marine accidents.



Ian Hanna is a lieutenant in the United States Coast Guard and has been deployed aboard numerous ships in the Arctic. Ian is currently studying for his M.S. in marine and environmental affairs at the University of Washington, where he is an International Policy Institute Arctic Fellow in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies.

Find the introductory article for this series here.

[Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard. Graph courtesy of NSIDC]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.