Follow the money: polar shipping forums draw a wide variety of global players
“Ninety per cent of the world knows nothing about driving a ship in ice"
Despite overwhelming reports that predict a regular summertime ice-free Northwest Passage within the next few decades, Canada’s northern archipelago is a long way from becoming the next marine super highway.
In fact, because weather and sea ice will remain unpredictable for the foreseeable future, and because of shallow channels, limited Arctic Ocean mapping and virtually no marine infrastructure, it may never become the preferred option for the world’s largest shipping companies, who require a high degree of predictability.
So when David Jackson of the Canadian Ice Service, and Tim Keane of Fednav, head to the beautiful port city of Helsinki, Finland, next week for the annual Arctic Shipping Forum, talk around the snack table will likely focus on other issues, such as ship design, insurance, resource exploration pressure and the new polar shipping code that is supposed to be finalized this year.
“It concentrates a lot of the interests, all the organizations who have an interest in the increased shipping or change in shipping or economic activity in the Arctic,” said Jackson, who has attended a half dozen of these forums, as ice breaking manager for the Canadian Coast Guard — his job before 2010 — and now as director of the CIS.
“What we’ve seen over the last 10 years in this particular forum is a real growth in the diversity of those interests.”
The Arctic Shipping Forum is held twice annually — once in Europe and once in North America.
Delegates to these forums used to consist mainly of shipping and oil and gas companies, but the Arctic, and its seemingly endless potential, is on everyone’s radar.
Jackson said forum delegates now include a lot of bankers and financiers, insurance companies, cruise tourism outfits, people engaged in Arctic science and technology, and also environmental groups and other non-governmental organizations from around the world.
It makes for diverse discussions, plenty of schmoozing and a prime opportunity for businesses and governments to make announcements.
One of the more interesting items that came out of the October 2013 North American forum in St. John’s, Newfoundland was the use of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), or drones, to survey ice conditions ahead of where a ship is going to relay video back to the ship for safe navigation.
Fednav announced on March 25 that it was the first company to successfully use video-equipped drones to scout ahead for ice surveillance.
“The use of UAVs is proving to be extremely beneficial to identify many ice features that should be avoided ahead of the vessel, as well as identifying open water leads to improve voyage efficiency,” said Fednav’s Thomas Paterson in a March 25 news release.
Jackson said in order to meet an increase in demand for year-round data on ice conditions in Canadian waters, the CIS is also considering how drones might complement satellite imagery.
One of the big topics of discussion during the April 8-10 forum in Helsinki will be the Polar Code, a new mandatory shipping protocol being written by the International Maritime Organization, the United Nations’ agency that sets standards for international shipping.
The code, which is expected to be completed this year for implementation in 2017, will contain a set of regulations to help shippers safely navigate through Arctic waters in a way that respects the unique northern environment and the people who live there.
According to the IMO’s website, the Polar Code will cover everything from ship design and construction to equipment, operation, training, search and rescue and environmental protection for waters around the Arctic and Antarctica.
“The Polar Code is more for people who are new to ice navigation,” said Keane, senior manager Arctic operations and projects for the Montreal-based Fednav.
“They may be unaware of the realities of it and having a regulatory regime that reminds people of the need to account for certain things is important.”
He said shipping forums are starting to attract potential new players who come sniffing for business and may be ill-informed about the realities of polar shipping.
“Ninety per cent of the world knows nothing about driving a ship in ice, for example, so there has to be some means of quantifying what you should and shouldn’t do,” Keane said.
Jackson, through the Coast Guard and the CIS, has contributed to various parts of the code, including a portion that is expected to require shipping companies to have ice specialists on board who know how to read satellite data and navigate through ice.
“We — all the northern ice services — have an interest in contributing to the curriculum that’s designed to teach those people to ensure the ice knowledge is taught according to World Meteorological Organization standards,” Jackson said.
He’s often asked at forums such as these to comment on what lies ahead in the coming decade. Much will change, he said.
Canada’s polar region will continue to get busier, he said, as scientists, adventurers and cruise companies go exploring on the water and tundra. Resource exploration and extraction will increase as well and Canada’s High Arctic Research Station will open in Cambridge Bay in 2017.
But some things will remain, at least for now. Like winter.
“It doesn’t really matter that the ice is changing or melting, because if the ice is where you are, you still have a problem,” he said.
“There’s still ice. As far as I know, there’s still going to be winter.”