Climate change leads to more sea ice and higher risks for commercial marine shipping
For more than ten months of the year, Canada’s Arctic is gripped by sub zero temperatures and its waters remain covered by ice. The sea ice found in these waters falls into two categories – fast ice and pack ice. While fast ice stays firm and adheres to the coastline or sea floor, pack ice breaks up and drifts away. Pack ice can collide with other ice to form thicker ice, creating unpredictable conditions and dangerous hazards for ships. To safely navigate through these ice-choked waters, vessels need the assistance of icebreakers to cut a path through pack ice.
Icebreakers play many important roles both above and below the Arctic Circle. With their double hulls, rounded bows made of high strength steel and sloping stems for manoeuvrability, icebreakers are capable of breaking through ice as thick as three metres. With 90% of global consumer goods transported by ships, and with a vast amount of Canada’s waters impeded by ice up to ten months of the year, the country’s icebreaker fleet guides the movement of marine traffic through ice. They ensure that most Canadian ports are open for business year-round and enable “an otherwise ice-choked economy.” Icebreakers also provide search and rescue services such as assisting distressed vessels, contribute to safeguarding Arctic sovereignty through ferry services, resupply communities in the North, support natural resource and infrastructure development in the Arctic, and conduct research necessary to understand climate change and inform climate adaptation.
Canada’s icebreaking capacity
Given their myriad of capabilities, icebreaking vessels are important national assets, historically and today. Canada has been building and using icebreakers since the early 1900s, when ice-capable vessels were sent to meet a variety of needs including the re-supply of goods to isolated communities. By 1904, they were being used to support Canada’s claims to sovereignty over the Arctic Archipelago, and in 1916, the country built its first icebreaker to serve the Port of Montreal. These activities continue to be important facets of Canada’s icebreaking program to this day, directly supporting the country’s economy by ensuring ports remain unimpeded by ice and extending the navigation season for sustained maritime trade.
Building icebreaking capacity continues, both within Canada and among other northern neighbours. With a fleet of 40 icebreakers, Russia has the world’s largest fleet, followed by Canada, which has 18 public icebreakers in operation under the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG). As illustrated in the following infographic, the CCG fleet includes a variety of vessels to cater to a range of purposes. The largest of the fleet is currently the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, which will be replaced by the CCGS John G. Diefenbaker once it is built. However, significant delays have occurred and no delivery date has been set for the new polar icebreaker. During the winter months, most of the CCG’s icebreakers are based in southeastern Canada where they ensure that the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River remain accessible to vessels. During the summer season, typically between May and October, the fleet is deployed to the Canadian Arctic.
Under the CCG’s jurisdiction, commercial ships use an icebreaking escort through a fee-based system. These funds allow for continued icebreaker support and capacity building across ice-covered regions of Canada.
The CCG icebreaking program does not operate in isolation. Since 1980, the CCG and United States Coast Guard (USCG) have shared responsibility for icebreaking activities within the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway. This enables greater efficiency on both sides of the border, increasing capability to keep waters open for commerce.
Climate change increases the need for icebreakers
While the expression “sea ice loss” often brings to mind an ice cube melting in a bathtub, there are limits to this analogy when it comes to understanding the effects of climate change on ice conditions and what that means for safe vessel transits. Sea ice loss sees the melting of multi-year ice, with a variety of human and natural factors manipulating this ice into smaller pieces of ice known as “bergy bits” and “growlers.” Pack ice is dynamic, and therefore unpredictable. As the extent of Arctic sea ice trends downwards, consequences include greater exposure to storms, coastal erosion and risks of flooding of coastal wetlands.
What sea ice remains lurks dangerously as a threat to shipping. Capt. Ivan Oxford, Ship Master and Ice Navigator at Desgagnés, a veteran mariner in Arctic waters, says: “Exposure to thick first-year ice, multi-year ice, glacial ice and ice in high concentration is one of our highest risks, with limited ability to lessen its effect. This is always a concern, particularly when navigating in reduced visibility and darkness. When navigating in severe conditions, in areas where there is a lack of access to weather forecasts and no pilotage services, the race against time is always part of your consciousness. But we must also deal with the now; reducing speed and changing course to avoid ice is always of the highest importance.” Icebreakers provide an essential service to enable the safe operation of vessels under extreme and increasingly dynamic conditions.
To ensure the safety of mariners within Hudson Bay, the East Coast, the Great Lakes, along the St. Lawrence River and the Arctic as well as to understand and mitigate risks associated with sea ice loss, Environment Canada established the Canadian Ice Service (CIS). The CIS is a central operating facility where data is assimilated, satellite images are analyzed, ice charts and forecasts are produced and warnings about Canada’s navigable waters are regularly issued. Working in partnership with the CCG, CIS assigns an Ice Services Specialist (ISS) to icebreakers travelling Canadian waters. The responsibilities of the ISS include receiving airborne radar and satellite imagery and carrying out tactical ice reconnaissance on helicopters to inform icebreaking crews and ice operations centres. These centres run each ice season, twenty-four hours a day, and keep in contact with working icebreakers as well as shipping vessels transiting ice-covered waters.
Icebreaking in the Arctic
Marine trade plays a growing role in the Canadian Arctic. A consequence of climate-induced sea ice loss is that new Arctic shipping routes – such as the Northwest Passage, which runs through Canada’s territorial waters – are increasingly viable. Under normal conditions, goods shipped from Japan to the Netherlands via this route could arrive up to 20 days faster than the 54 days it would take if shipped via the Panama Canal. These potential time savings are being promoted in relation to the opening of the Arctic waterways to international shipping, with the caveat that, even under normal conditions, they require an icebreaking escort. Despite increased reliance on icebreakers and ice-strengthened vessels to enhance safe navigation, there are currently no international standards concerning the environmental impacts of icebreaking in polar waters, in comparison to mandatory rules for pollution prevention under MARPOL and non-mandatory guidance for biofouling. Capitalizing on trans-Arctic shipping routes could pose even greater risk to the already-fragile Arctic environment. Concerned for shipping repercussions on a changing Arctic, American organization Ocean Conservancy and Nike partnered to launch the Arctic Corporate Shipping Pledge in 2019 which sees leading corporations pledging to “not intentionally route ships or send goods through the Arctic region.”
Beyond supporting commercial ships in transit, icebreakers provide economic links to northern communities through the resupply of goods. For example, the government of Nunavut organizes the Eastern Arctic sea lift each summer, working to provide nearly 40,000 people in more than 40 communities across Nunavut and Nunavik with essential supplies that ensure they are safe and comfortable through the winter.
Icebreaking along the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes
The Great Lakes – St. Lawrence Trade Corridor is another important region in which conditions demand icebreaking services to enable supply chains operating in both Canada and the United States. The St. Lawrence Seaway section of the corridor, which includes sophisticated lock systems operating between Montreal to mid-Lake Erie is closed from late December to mid-March when ice renders the lock system impassable. The Sault Ste. Marie locks which connect along St. Mary’s River between Lake Huron and Lake Superior are also closed during this period. Although the locks are closed during these months, shipping operations continue west of the St. Lawrence Seaway along the Great Lakes as conditions allow, with a short, 10-week break typically falling in mid-January.
In the St. Lawrence River, downstream of Montreal, the presence of ice in the shipping lanes, adds a degree of complexity to ship movements in this region during the winter months. In addition to enabling the safe transit of vessel traffic along the river, icebreaking services ensure the health and safety of coastal communities. In the event of ice jams, the CCG has icebreaking vessels homeported in Quebec City on standby to clear the ice and prevent localized flooding. During these times, flood prevention is the primary goal of icebreaking activities, and the CCG notifies communities so that those who use the ice for hiking, fishing, or snowmobiling stay safely off the ice.
Deemed an “economic enabler,” icebreaking along this trade corridor is a government service that impacts both the Canadian and the United States economies. When there is a lack of icebreaker capacity on either side, businesses risk substantial loss. In 2019, some companies were unable to trade along Lake Superior because of ice conditions, pushing the start of the shipping season to much later in the spring. The St. Lawrence Economic Development Council (SODES) advocates for increased icebreaker support along the St. Lawrence River, and by extension, the Great Lakes, in order to better facilitate safe and sustainable marine shipping.
The social and environmental impacts of icebreakers
Icebreaking operations impact the ecosystems and communities that call Canada’s ice-covered regions home. Along the St. Lawrence River, for example, icebreaking activities clear the mouths of streams and rivers of their ice which helps ice flow during spring break-up, prevents ice jams and protects flood prone areas. Other positive impacts include the Arctic sea lift that deliver vital goods to remote communities, as well as the enhanced research capabilities for scientists who are able to study within regions previously inaccessible.
Other impacts are more complex. Food security and sovereignty are of concern due to factors such as the effect of noise pollution from breaking ice on species throughout the food chain, as well as interruption to caribou migration paths and significant marine areas during harvesting seasons. Dr. Jackie Dawson’s team at the University of Ottawa have researched extensively how Inuit and local populations’ abilities to safely use local travel routes and hunt successfully are hindered when ice is disrupted, broken, or moved.
Given the impact of sea ice loss on Inuit and local communities, it is important to take into consideration Traditional Knowledge1 as well as economic, cultural, and health connections to Arctic marine areas in order to build and sustain marine support services, including icebreaking. The CCG, in close partnership with Transport Canada and Parks Canada, have focused on improving collaboration and communication with local Inuit communities, which includes sharing when an icebreaker is scheduled to pass through their region.
Striking a balance
Some researchers advocate for recognizing the ‘dividing line’ when discussing environmental impact of icebreakers. For example, one might analyze the number of vessels dedicated to economic versus non-economic exercises, such as scientific research. Regardless of their intended purposes, icebreakers do disrupt ecosystems through noise pollution and may break sea ice that has been relied upon by humans and animals for transport and subsistence hunting. It is a balancing act, and one which those working in ocean governance will need to pay acute attention to as conditions continue to change across the Canadian Arctic.
How can we mitigate the detrimental impacts of icebreakers and increased vessel traffic through the Canadian Arctic? One solutions-based project is the Low Impact Shipping Corridors, which aims to limit shipping in the Arctic to specific routes where resources could best support vessel traffic.
Whether providing escort to a commercial ship, rushing to the aid of an ice-captured vessel, or transporting essential goods to Canada’s most remote communities, icebreakers have many roles. Not without their own environmental impacts, the ways in which icebreakers are designed, built, and operated each have the potential to reduce negative effects while ensuring these vessels can continue to provide essential services and support socio-economic opportunities, playing an important part in Canada’s approach to climate adaptation. As climate change continues to alter ice-impeded waters, it will become increasingly important that icebreakers operate in a safe, efficient, and sustainable manner. They will contribute to conservation science while enhancing national sovereignty in the Arctic and enable responsible shipping through all ice-covered regions of Canada.
1 Traditional Knowledge is a body of knowledge specific to Indigenous people. It comes from their cultural heritage, traditional lifestyles and the strong relationship they cultivate with the natural environment. Traditional Knowledge includes deep understanding and insights into traditional subsistence and resource harvesting practices as well as extensive knowledge of environmentally sensitive and culturally significant coastal areas.
Published December 10, 2020