Transpolar Sea Route: A Maritime Pipe Dream?


German company Bremenports, with Icelandic authorities and engineering company Elfa have agreed to conduct a feasibility study for a large deep-water port facility located at the northeastern tip of Iceland, Finnafjörður. If implemented, this port will be intended as a transit hub for trans-Arctic shipping via the Transpolar Sea Route (multiple routes crossing the Arctic Ocean away from the coasts) for freight and petroleum. Suitability studies have already been underway by Bremenports for several years, with the company reportedly investing upwards of 2.2 million euros in these studies since summer 2014.

This port will act as a base for regional oil and gas operations, a freight hub for maritime shipping and as a service port for both energy extraction and freight. To facilitate these ambitious endeavours, there will be also be LNG bunkering facilities and a search and rescue base located at the port.

It is important to note that this is a long-term project. The first weather stations were put in the harbor in August of this year, with additional research to be conducted in 2016. Bremenports believe that Finnafjörður is the ideal location for a hub along the Transpolar Sea Route once ice has receded sufficiently to allow for shipping (estimated by the company by 2030). At present, only heavy icebreakers are capable of transiting this route.

However, the question remains: is the Transpolar Sea Route viable in the years ahead? The main draw of this sea route is that it avoids transit through the territorial waters of Canada and Russia via the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route respectively. This means, at present, it is mostly within international waters. This status of these waters is however, subject to change.

The Future of Arctic Shipping along the Transpolar Sea Route. Courtesy of The Arctic Institute
The Future of Arctic Shipping along the Transpolar Sea Route. Courtesy of The Arctic Institute.

Recalling Denmark’s December 2014 bid for the extension of Greenland’s continental shelf and Russia’s August 2015 update to their claim, their exclusive economic zones are likely to be expanded. While the degree to which they will be is subject to question, these extensions will still expand the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) in which Canada and Russia are able to exert their laws.

While peaceful transit through other nation’s EEZs are allowed under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), this is only for completely ice free zones. The extension of the EEZs also will give Canada and Russia the ability to impose their different regulatory bodies (Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act [Canada] and the Northern Sea Route Administration [Russia]) as UNCLOS Part XII Section 8 Article 234 allows for the imposition of regulation on the transit of vessels through areas with ice cover and “severe climatic conditions.” While ice may not be as big a concern by the time the Transpolar Sea Route becomes reality, Canadian and Russia will likely have had their EEZs extended and the climactic conditions will likely remain extreme enough for the imposition of their regulations on shipping. In the Russian case, this means acquiring permits, paying for icebreaker support and sufficient insurance in the event of search and rescue or environmental clean up.

While the port facilities being planned in Iceland will have a search and rescue facility, if vessels run into trouble along the Transpolar Sea Route, it is likely that Russia will be providing the majority of search and rescue support.

Russian Nuclear Icebreaker `50 Years of Victory`` on course to Geographic North Pole. Courtesy of Flickr / (Barry) Griffiths
Russian Nuclear Icebreaker `50 Years of Victory“ on course to Geographic North Pole. Courtesy of Flickr / (Barry) Griffiths

Despite international agreements, including the Arctic Search and Rescue Agreement signed in 2011; Russian icebreaking as well as search and rescue capabilities dwarf all other nations in the region. Under the 2011 agreement, the coastal Arctic nations have had the Arctic Ocean split into areas that they provide search and rescue for, stretching from their coastline to the centre of the Ocean. This has left Russia with the largest area to cover, with almost half of the region under Russia’s jurisdiction

The concept of the Transpolar Sea Route presupposes a nearly completely ice-free Arctic by approximately 2030. While some time away, the lack of proper search and rescue facilities in the region (beyond Russian capabilities) coupled with the future of the territorial extensions being uncertain, this proposed sea route appears to be nothing but a pipe dream.

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