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7.3 Trends in shipping in the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea

Last Updated: 
May 29, 2015

This indicator tracks the number of complete transits made by ship through the Northwest Passage and the number of ships working in the Beaufort Sea each year.

CCGS Amundsen

CCGS Amundsen during the Canadian Arctis Shelf Exchange Study in 2003-2004. Photo courtesy of © CASES website - photo gallery.

The type of ship is identified to provide information on differences related to potential impacts to ice and the environment. Small boats and yachts (less than 20 m long) may have considerably less environmental impact than larger vessels. Passages made by icebreakers are noted as these ships can navigate in more difficult conditions using more northern routes, and can open leads in the sea ice.

The information is compiled from NORDREG, Iqaluit1, and information publicly available on the Internet, complemented by information from Transport Canada, Marine Safety, Prairie and Northern Region3.

Zones of marine activity

Zones of marine activity (map) - From ArcticData Download by Arctic Council CAFF/PAME. (Downloaded 19 May 2011)4.

NWT Focus

This indicator tracks changes in the level of human activity in fragile Arctic waterways, including the Beaufort Sea. Shipping in Arctic waters is predicted to increase due to climate change and the melt of sea ice6. Ships usually enter the western portion of the Northwest Passage from the east through a southern route along the main coast – the Amundsen Gulf – or through two northern routes, either north of Banks Island or south-east of Banks Island. Potential environmental effects of increased shipping activities in the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea include higher risk of oil or waste spills, changes in ice conditions due to leads caused by ship wakes, and impacts on wildlife and marine species5.

Current view: status and trend

Transits through the Northwest Passage

A record number (30) of vessels transited through the Northwest Passage in 2012. In 2013, for the first time, a large bulk carrier transited the Northwest Passage. Only 17 vessels managed the full northwest passages in 2014, due to a short and cold summer.

Since the first crossing of the Northwest Passage by Amundsen in 1906, few ships (less than 1 every 10 years on average) had successfully completed the full passage until 1969, when the oil tanker SS Manhattan, refitted with an ice-breaker bow, crossed the Passage from east to west, and then returned east. That trip resulted in ten transits being recorded that summer, as four icebreakers escorted the oil tanker. The number of completed trips through the Arctic Ocean increased in the late 1970s, mostly due to the availability of icebreakers and other ships capable of navigating in difficult northern waters. This is particularly the case for Arctic tourism2. 

More recently, there has been an increase in ship-based research in the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea, attributable to concern over the effects of climate change in arctic marine ecosystems, culminating in more research efforts during the International Polar Year.

From the 1980s on, voyages through the Passage have become an annual event. The number of transits increased from 4 per year in the 1980s to 20-30 per year in 2009-2013. These transits are mostly completed by icebreakers on coast guard and research duties, small vessels or adventurers, passenger ships offering Arctic tourism opportunities, and tug and supply vessels, some with barges. Other types of ships completing the passage include oil/fuel tankers, drill ships, seismic vessels, cable vessels, and buoy tenders. A great portion of the increase in transits since the late 1980s is due to an increase in shipping activities by tug-supply vessels--half of them with icebreaking capacity--involved in the oil and gas industry in the Beaufort Sea. 

Types of Ships

The vast majority of ships making the trip through the Northwest Passage take one of the southern routes, all filing though Amundsen Gulf close to the Arctic mainland. Only 8% of transits enter/leave the Beaufort Sea through the northern routes around Banks Island. The only northern transits through the difficult ice-choked M’Clure Strait (route North 1) occurred in 1993 (twice), 1998, and 1999, all by an icebreaker, the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Louis S. Saint-Laurent. Two of the four large cruise ships operating in the Arctic tourism industry today are icebreakers, and are capable of navigating the easier alternative northern route  east around Banks Island. 

Number of transits

Transits through the Northwest Passage by type of ship. Source: NORDREG; Data complete for 2014.

Beaufort Sea

 Beaufort Sea vessels only

Transit through the Beaufort Sea by type of ship and month. Source: NORDREG. Data for 2014.

Detailed information on shipping activities is now available for the Beaufort Sea1. During the 2014, most ships were present in the area in September (red line in map), when ice cover is at its lowest. One icebreaking bulk carrier crossed the Beaufort Sea via the Prince of Wales Strait (east of Banks Island) on its way to Asia from a nickel mining operation in Nunavik (Quebec)7. Passenger ships5 did not enter the area, and research vessels, small vessels, and supply tugs remained near coastlines. Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers have been navigating the Beaufort Sea on an annual basis since 2002, providing navigational aid and conducting research. In 2014, Canadian Icebreakers were present from August to October, and were the only type of vessel navigating in the northernmost part of the Beaufort Sea at the edge of or in the ice pack. Four Canadian Coast Guard ships (CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier, Louis St-Laurent, Amundsen, Nahidik) were in the Beaufort Sea in 2007-2008 for conducting research as part of the International Polar Year.  

Looking Forward

Annual commercial use of the Northwest Passage by tug/supply and tourism ships that have icebreaking capacity or that are escorted by icebreakers has been a reality since the 1980s. So far, this type of annual commercial use, in addition to Arctic tourism, is increasing rapidly.

A further increase in shipping, especially for commercial use, is predicted as the open water season extends and Arctic sea ice shrinks (See THE BIG PICTURE: A CHANGING PLANET focal point). How this may occur is still uncertain. The Canadian Ice Service (Environment Canada) warns that predicting a rapid increase in shipping in the Northwest Passage should be done with caution:

“…predictions of an ice-free Arctic may lead many into a false sense of optimism regarding the ease of future shipping. Sea ice is highly variable and there will still be summers of occasional heavy ice conditions. Future navigation in the Northwest Passage may see a blockage of routes by the southern shift in pack ice and an increase in drifting Old Ice creating choke points in narrow channels and navigation hazards...”  Shipping in the Canadian Arctic Other Possible Climate Change Scenarios6:

Even if relatively ice-free in late summer, the Northwest Passage and the Beaufort Sea remain difficult to navigate with their unmarked shallow areas, shifting sand-gravel bars, fog, and dangerous weather. Increasing shipping in the region would require a high preparedness for potential environmental incidents.

In 2009, the Arctic Council developed a first Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment and made several recommendations to ensure marine safety and marine environmental protection in fragile Arctic waters, including Canadian Arctic waters.  Canada, as part of the Arctic Council, endorsed the assessment.

The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Findings are:

  1. From an environmental point of view, Arctic shipping poses a threat to the region’s unique ecosystems. This threat can be effectively mitigated through careful planning and effective regulation in areas of high risk.
  2. Release of oil into the Arctic marine environment, either through accidental release, or illegal discharge, is the most significant threat from shipping activity.
  3. Ship strikes of whales and other marine mammals are of concern in areas where shipping routes coincide with seasonal migration and areas of aggregation.
  4. The introduction of invasive species into the Arctic marine environment from shipping can occur and the risk may be enhanced due to changing climate, possibly making conditions more favorable to some species. The most risk exists where a transfer of organisms from ecosystems of similar latitudes and conditions can occur. Of particular future concern is the transfer of organisms across the Arctic Ocean from the North Pacific to the North Atlantic or vice versa.
  5. There are certain areas in the Arctic region that are of heightened ecological significance, many of which will be at risk from current and/or increased shipping. Many of these areas are located in geographically restrictive locations or chokepoints where much shipping activity also occurs, such as the Bering Strait, Hudson Strait, Lancaster Sound, Pechora Sea and the Kara Port.
  6. Migratory marine mammals such as bowhead, beluga, narwhal and walrus have wintering areas in the southern extent of the sea ice and spring migration routes into the Arctic through systems of leads and polynyas also used by many seabirds, ducks and other marine birds during spring migration. These migration corridors correspond broadly to the current main shipping routes and travel through geographic chokepoints.
  7. The black carbon emitted from shipping in the Arctic could have significant regional impacts by accelerating ice melt.
  8. Ship emissions including greenhouse gases (GHGs), Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), Sulfur Oxides (SOx) and Particulate Matter (PM) may have negative effects on the Arctic environment and will increase in the Arctic region proportionately with increased shipping activity. Effective reduction of ship emissions can be achieved through the application of feasible and best available technologies, through air emissions reduction techniques and, most importantly, through effective implementation of relevant IMO regulations.
  9. Sound is of vital biological importance to marine mammals and anthropogenic noise produced through shipping and other vessel activity can have various adverse effects on Arctic species.
  10. Subarctic seas support some of the richest fisheries in the world in the Bering Sea and the Barents Sea. These two areas are also the location of the heaviest shipping traffic now occurring in the Arctic region. A potential accidental spill of oil or other hazardous and noxious substances in these areas could have large economic, social and environmental impacts.
  11. Environmental effects on marine mammals, seabirds and fisheries from ship sourced disturbances, noise, or potential accidental/illegal release of oil and other hazardous and noxious substances may impact culturally and economically significant subsistence harvests of these animals.
  12. The most immediate impacts of climate change in the Arctic will be the reduction of summer sea ice, longer open water seasons in the fall and the reduction of the year-round presence of multi-year ice. These changes may have far reaching implications for Arctic ecosystems and will also result in the lengthening of the current shipping season. Shipping in the future may be occurring much later into the fall and possibly earlier in the spring, thereby increasing the possibility of interaction between migrating and calving species and ships. Quote from: Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 20094.

"[we must also recognize that]... the future increase in human activity in the Arctic, including Arctic marine shipping and the continued overflight of the Arctic region by commercial aircraft, will place increasing demands on the SAR infrastructure.” Quote from: Arctic Maring Shipping Assessment Report 20094

In May 2011, the Arctic Council signed the first International treaty on Search and Rescue in the Arctic.

Looking Around

The number of ships navigating in eastern Arctic waters, especially in Baffin Bay, is higher than in the western Arctic Ocean. Many of these ships are part of medium to large cruise ship tourism operations.

Find out more

Other focal points


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Ref. 1. NORDREG. 2015. Northwest Passages – update 2014. Responsible officer, Centre SCTM/Nordreg Canada. Iqaluit NU.

Ref. 2. Stewart E. J., S.E.L. Howell, D. Draper, J. Yackel, and A. Tivy. 2007. Sea Ice in Canada's Arctic: Implications for cruise tourism. Arctic 60:370-380.

Ref. 3. Capt.Narendra Mathur, personal communication.

Ref. 4. Arctic Council. 2009. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment 2009 Report.

Ref. 5. Stewart E.J., D. Draper, M.E. Johnston. 2005. A review of tourism research in the Polar regions. Arctic 58:383-394.

Ref. 6. Wilson K.J., J. Falkingham, H. Melling, and R. De Abreu. 2008. Shipping in the Canadian Arctic  Other Possible Climate Change Scenarios. Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium Proceedings. 2004 IEEE International Volume 3, Issue. 20-24 Sept. 2004:1853-1856

Ref. 7. Fednav. 2014. Nunavik’s log book.

Updated: May 29, 2015