and what does it mean for shipping ?

It is now several weeks since returning from the 6 week voyage as Ice Navigator onboard the Japanese research ship Mirai in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas.

What stands out from that voyage is that the 2013 Arctic navigational season has not been another year of calamitous reduction in ice as so often reported by media.  This year, we encountered more ice, not less, with the ice extending further south towards the North American coast than previous years.

Of course, most of the media reported "the 6th least year on record", hardly mentioning that the scale by which they are measuring only goes back as far as 1979 and that it refers only to area and not the thickness of ice.

Only in the last week have some media outlets also reported that this year the Antarctic is shaping up as a year with one of the greatest extents of sea ice coverage on record.

What does this mean for shipping ?

As I wrote in a blog while onboard the Mirai, whether one year or another is measured as least or greatest ice coverage is not the important point - what is important is that polar ice coverage remains highly variable.

Ice is present most of the time, in fact ice cover exists 8 to 9 months of the year, and we continue to experience good and bad ice years.  When we measure navigational seasons for vessels other than icebreakers in weeks, not months, this puts a different perspective on future voyage plans.

Even during the brief navigational seasons ice is still present and being mobile in nature ice remains a hazard to shipping.  Ice will block routes and passages previously open, force changes to ETA's and challenge even the best-planned commercial venture.

China's COSCO discovered this on their "test" voyage of the Yong Sheng this summer along the Northern Sea Route.  Yunpeng Li, president of China Ocean Shipping Company made it clear at the Arctic Circle conference in Reykjavik in October, that they completed the voyage successfully but saw no commercial advantage to their operations in routing through the Arctic for many years to come.

The reason being the lack of assurance of "on time arrival" of cargoes due to voyage deviations caused by ice.

Maersk Lines' Nils Anderson told the Financial Times, "This is not a short-term opportunity. We will see some single ships sailing through the Arctic . . . But the reality is, for commercial shipping such as container shipping, this is not something that will happen within the next 10 to 20 years."

The challenges to operating safely still exist.  There are certainly advantages in routing through either the Northern Sea Route along the Russian coast and even through the Northwest Passage along the North American coast, but they will be for specific one-off cargoes, where delays due to ice are of less importance.

But even these voyages will require mariners experienced and skilled in ice operations to safely navigate in these ice-infested regions.

Those who have operated for many years in these regions and insurers that cover their ships and cargoes know it takes individuals with particular skills and competence gained over many years to safely operate in the polar regions.

Those who claim otherwise are ignorant of the real risks or lucky to have successfully completed such a voyage.

Author: Captain David (Duke) Snider who is the CEO and Principal Consultant of Martech Polar Consulting Ltd, a privately owned company providing global ice navigation services and support for polar shipping, ice navigation, polar research, expedition logistics support and ice related consulting services.
He is a Master Mariner and with 27 years at sea, operating many vessels in a broad variety of ice regimes in polar regions, the Baltic, Great Lakes and Eastern North American waters. He has served onboard Naval, Commercial and Coast Guard Vessels. As an Ice Navigator he has been the author of and contributed to many ice regime shipping feasibility studies. He retired from Canadian Coast Guard service as Regional Director Fleet Western Region in 2012.
Captain Snider is author of the book Polar Ship Operations published by the Nautical Institute in 2012, as well as many other papers on ice navigation. He holds a Bachelor of Maritime Studies degree granted by Memorial University of Newfoundland in 2006 and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He was awarded the Queen's Diamond Jubilee medal in 2011 for his many years as a member of the Nautical Institute dedicated to improving safety at sea, with particular focus on improving standards of ice navigation.
Captain Snider was elected Vice President of the Nautical Institute in 2012 after having served 5 years on the International Council of the Institute. He is Chair of the Ice Navigator Working Group which tasked with moving forward the Nautical Institute's goal of putting in place a global standard for Ice Navigators and contributing to safe navigation in ice covered waters in all regions.