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January 07, 2007 — Ottawa, Ontario

A new NRC study reveals that climate change could make it more, not less dangerous for shipping in the Canadian Arctic. And, even with significant warming in coming decades, the research predicts that Canada's legendary North West Passage will remain impenetrable to large-scale commercial shipping.

The NRC Canadian Hydraulics Centre (NRC-CHC) study, completed earlier this year, is the result of a Transport Canada request for help to update the Arctic Shipping Pollution Prevention Regulations. These regulations strictly control shipping into the Canadian Arctic's ice-packed waters in order to prevent damage to ships and the resulting potential environmental impact.

"Transport Canada came to us and asked us to help update these regulations and put them on more of a scientific footing," says Garry Timco, NRC-CHC group leader for Cold Regions Technologies.

Arctic shipping is crucial for the delivery of supplies to northern Canadian communities, to support oil and gas exploration in the Beaufort Sea and Arctic mining activity.

A ship navigates through sea ice in the Canadian Arctic
A ship navigates through sea ice in the Canadian Arctic

"Several economic forces, including new mining developments, increased Arctic cruise ship tourism, and the growth of Arctic communities all point towards increased shipping activity in the Arctic and the need for a better understanding of ice conditions," says Peter Timonin, Transport Canada's Marine Director for the Prairie and Northern Region.

For the half-dozen companies that regularly ship into Canada's Arctic waters, access is regulated based on two ways to identify ice conditions and the risk they pose to mariners and the environment.

The main component is the Zone-Date System. It divides the Canadian Arctic into 16 geographic zones from the Beaufort Sea in the West to the Davis Strait in the east. Each zone has an opening and closing date for shipping based on historical ice condition data up to the early 1970s.

In addition to the Zone-Date system, the Ice Regime System regulates shipping based on real-time rather than historical ice data. Shipping access is based on a combination of ship characteristics and ice conditions. Presently the Ice Regime System is used to regulate access to Arctic waters outside of the Zone-Date limits.

However, in the three decades since the regulations were enacted in 1972, ice conditions have changed significantly in the Canadian Arctic. A Canadian Ice Service study revealed that sea ice cover in the Canadian Arctic decreased by 15-per cent from 1969 to 2001.

What does this change in ice conditions mean for the safety of Arctic shipping and the regulations that manage it?

The NRC-CHC study analyzed actual ice conditions at seven points along the North West Passage based on ice data collected by the Canadian Ice Service from 1968 to 2004. The study focused on two representative years: 1986 when temperatures were colder than average; and 1998 when it was significantly warmer than average.

"There is huge year-to-year variability in ice conditions," says NRC-CHC project engineer Ivana Kubat, who led the research. In cold years the ice cover can almost double, while in warm years it can be half the average.

Annual variability notwithstanding, the study found that average Arctic ice conditions have changed to the extent that most zones should open and close later in the year.

"In many zones there's still significant first year ice at the official opening of the zone, yet the zone is ice free at the current closure date," says Kubat.

The research also revealed that any decrease in annual ice cover as might be expected from global warming doesn't necessarily mean safer shipping conditions, cautions Timco.

"If the first year ice melts then you have multi-year ice that can drift into the shipping lanes," he says." This multi-year ice is actually thicker and harder than the first-year ice. Unless you have a high-powered ice breaking vessel, you're going to be stopped by this ice. So even if just one part of the whole North West Passage is clogged with multi-year ice, a ship would have to turn around and go back the same way."

Although the voyage through the North West Passage in 1969 of the U.S. oil tanker Manhattan, assisted by the Canadian icebreaker John A. Macdonald, grabbed international headlines, there is presently no regular commercial traffic through this legendary route.

"The Northwest Passage will not become another Suez or Panama Canal while marine insurance rates for sailing in the presence of ice remain as high as they are," notes Peter Timonin. "The insurance industry is extremely conservative in terms of assessing risk, and this cost plus the potential of losing a vessel in a remote part of the world is incentive enough to drive most ship operators to choose a more southerly route."

The Zone-Date System study builds on an earlier research in which the NRC-CHC group analyzed the efficacy of the Ice Regime System. That work, in close collaboration with Canada's Arctic shipping industry, concluded that ships with experienced skippers, and state-of-the-art ice detection equipment could safely have greater access to Arctic waters.

The results of both studies are presently being considered by Transport Canada officials in preparation for the updating, and international harmonisation, of Canada's Arctic Shipping regulations.

The Canadian North has always faced unique transportation challenges. It will be interesting to monitor how climate change further impacts our northern transportation system.

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Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada

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