Canadian Arctic Marine Transportation Issues, Opportunities and Challenges


  • Frédéric Lasserre
  • Kristin Bartenstein



Melting sea ice

Although ice will always be present in the Arctic in winter, global warming induces a steady decline of the extent of sea ice and a rapid decrease in the share of multi-year ice, giving way to younger, thinner sea ice and giving credit to modelled scenarios of ice-free summers during the 21st century. However, ice remains a hazard and an impediment to navigation. Thinner and more fragmented ice moves faster and in patterns that are difficult to predict. It also seems more prone to building compression ridges. Ice arches preventing hard multi-year ice of the Arctic Ocean basin from penetrating into the Canadian Archipelago are weakening. In Baffin Bay, accelerated iceberg calving from Greenland is likely to increase the number of growlers, which pose a serious risk for navigation. From this emerges a nuanced picture of shipping conditions in the Canadian Arctic.

Expanding commercial shipping

Shipping in the Canadian Arctic is mainly driven by fishing, mining activities and community resupply, while transit shipping remains marginal. Fishing, mostly carried out by vessels based in Newfoundland and still less developed than in Greenland, is gradually moving north to Baffin Bay. As extraction sites are opening up, mining generates heavy traffic, in terms of both voyages and tonnage. Inland mining sites, faced with complex and costly land transportation due to melting permafrost, may further drive marine transportation. However, fluctuating world prices for commodities, not the extent of sea ice, are the main driver – or constraint – of mining activities. Community resupply is expanding as well, but strategies pursued by the four shipping companies involved differ. MTS took over from bankrupt NTCL in 2016 with a more limited service. Coastal Shipping Ltd, Desgagnés and NEAS all expanded westwards and opted for larger, heavier vessels without, however, expanding frequency of service.

Regulatory framework

Canada’s regulatory framework on Arctic was overhauled in 2018 to incorporate the Polar Code and modernize the regime. As IMO negotiations are ongoing, new regulatory adjustments are foreseeable. Area-based protection efforts are underway, but shipping needs and rights are considered carefully. Overall, Canada’s shipping regulation is not seen as an unnecessary impediment, but as warranted by prevailing shipping conditions.

Future Shipping Trends

Due to the constraints to shipping, destinational traffic is likely to remain dominant in the foreseeable future. Traffic generated by mining activities is likely to keep expanding provided no severe collapse of world commodity prices occurs. Community resupply may also experience continued expansion, partly fueled by mining ventures, provided operators can take advantage of improved port facilities in the Canadian archipelago.






Research Papers