Browse Projects > Detailed View

Marine Transportation and the Arctic Tracking Air Quality and Ecosystem Trends


Marine transportation takes several forms in the Arctic. Historically, the Arctic has what could be termed local traffic—tugs and barges delivering essential supplies to communities. Water-borne transport is often the only way to deliver these goods. Additionally, fishing is an important industry and provides subsistence to indigenous communities. Tourism in the form of cruise ships is also rising. The current extent of the Arctic ice cap is approximately 40 percent smaller than it was in 1979. Continued shrinkage in the ice cap, has led to projections of ice-free waters during warmer months, and would allow for the development of Arctic shipping lanes that avoid both the Panama and Suez Canals. These Arctic routes would reduce ship travel distance between markets by an average of 5,000 miles, cutting average transit times by an estimated 30 percent. Two possible routes include: • The Northern Sea Route (NSR), which transits Russian Arctic waters. • The Northwest Passage (NWP), which transits territorial waters of the United States and Canada. The number of vessels passing through the Bering Strait, the entry or exit point for both passages, increased from 220 vessels in 2008 to 480 vessels in 2012, a more than 100 percent increase. The growth rate was highest for tanker vessels. Tugs and other cargo vessels were the second and third largest categories of movements, respectively. While passage through the NSR is fairly limited, it is increasing. Only four ships passed in 2010, but 34 ships passed in 2012 and 71 in 2013. However, the NSR is challenging because vessels need to navigate through ice fields and shallow straits. Even more challenging is the NWP. In September 2013, the first large commercial vessel, MS Nordic Orion, transited the NWP, and it is projected that by 2051, most vessels will be able to move through this area without aid of an ice breaker. Depending upon development of offshore oil and gas in the Chukchi Sea (northward of Bering Strait) and Beaufort Sea (northward of Alaska), the NWP could also facilitate the movement of crude from the Alaskan North Slope to U.S. East Coast refineries A limited amount of exploratory drilling offshore of the Alaskan North Slope has been permitted, with plans to increase these activities along with the eventual development and operation of offshore oil and gas production platforms. When these offshore oil and gas fields are eventually developed a wide range of vessels will be needed including survey ships, drilling rigs, support vessels, crew boats, spill response vessels, offshore tugs involved in the construction of gravity base offshore platforms or artificial gravel islands, and pipe-laying vessels. Additionally, the opening of Arctic waters could increase cruise ship traffic in the area. Crystal Cruises completed an inaugural cruise through the NWP in 2016, and now other cruise lines are taking bookings for future cruises though the NWP. The shorter Arctic routes will substantially reduce vessel fuel consumption and emissions by reducing shipping distances. However, the increased marine vessel activity in the area could also have negative local air quality impacts. One of the issues concerns persistent organic pollutants (POPs). Due to their physical-chemical properties, POPs are readily transferred to the Arctic by air and water currents, where they bioaccumulate in the fatty tissues of local wildlife. Increased vessel traffic patterns in the Arctic will also elevate concentration of select hazardous air pollutants in northern latitudes. Aerial deposition of stack emissions also poses a unique threat to the Arctic; and researchers are finding that the black soot from ship smokestacks settles on polar ice sheets (lowering reflectivity and increasing absorption of radiation) accelerating the melting process. There is also considerable debate about whether an Arctic sea route offers the safety and reliability necessary for commercial shipping. Even with the diminishing sea ice, the Arctic is still a challenging environment: • Weather and sea ice conditions are highly unpredictable. • Accurate charts and navigational support are needed. • No harbors of refuge exist, and emergency response capabilities are limited. • Communications infrastructure is inadequate for many of the remote areas. • Multiple governing bodies are in the region. At present, vessel activities in the Artic are in their infancy. Careful monitoring and planning can help identify and mitigate impacts associated with the development of these shipping lanes


Development of an information system that compiles critical data needed to monitor vessel activities in the arctic and evaluate potential impacts these activities will have on air quality, climate change and local marine wildlife and ecosystems. Some of the attributed of this information system include the following:

  • Monitoring of traffic along Arctic shipping lanes using AIS data that track individual vessel movements. These vessels include transit vessels that carry freight between Asia and Europe and resident vessels that deliver supplies to local communities and may provide support for the development of offshore oil and gas platforms.

  • AIS vessel traffic data can be applied to classification society data and EPA emission factors and HAP speciation profiles to quantify arctic marine vessel emissions.

  • Compilation of POP speciation profiles and emission factors for marine vessels, including an assessment of how these pollutants behave in Arctic environments.

  • Data on the effect on carbon deposition of stack emissions on sea ice.

  • Transport vulnerabilities and environmental risks from increased shipping, along with mitigation opportunities.

  • The effects of increased shipping on Arctic water quality and habitats, in particular increased potential for spills in the Arctic. Monitor commercial fishing traffic. An International Fisheries Accord agreement was established in 2017, which prohibits commercial fishing in the Central Arctic Ocean for 16 years. The agreement will allow adequate science to be collected and appropriate regulatory mechanisms to be put in place.


Arctic sea routes may play an important role in reducing fuel usage and emissions for select routes between Asia and Europe, as well as Alaska and the U.S. East Coast seaports. But increased vessel traffic combined with communication, navigation, and meteorological challenges may increase the risk and magnitude of impacts from human activities in the Arctic’s fragile, remote and complex ecosystems. This threat is exacerbated by the current lack of response infrastructure to manage or contain human initiated or exacerbated hazards. Increases in shipping traffic may also increase the risk of ship collision with large marine mammals such as bowhead whales, which share migratory paths that intersect with current navigation routes.

Policy makers and regulatory agencies will need data to monitor current and projected marine vessel traffic and the effects of shipping has on local air quality. These data will be critical for the development of plans to mitigate the impacts these activities have on the local environment.

Related Research:

This research would support a balanced view of Arctic shipping: estimating impacts related to increased traffic on the Northern Sea Route.


The following three tasks are not comprehensive. They are intended as a guide to what might be necessary to successfully complete the research:

Phase 1

  • Review available marine vessel data that can be used to quantify vessel traffic in the Arctic , including but not limited to AIS data, noting data structure and limitations
  • Review data sources of vessel and engine characteristics, including but not limited to IHS register of ships
  • Review available emission estimation information such as calculation methods, emission factors, hazardous air pollutant (HAP) speciation profiles, and operating load factors.

  • Compile a bibliography of arctic fate/transport studies of air pollutants.

  • Compile data on marine mammal migratory routes in the Arctic.

  • Discuss any data or research gaps identified, along with any assumptions used to complete Phase 1.

  • Develop and provide a summary document, which fully explores and addresses these items in Phase 1.

Phase 2

  • Develop a data structure that links vessel traffic data with engine attributes and emission factors to estimate emissions

  • Develop a system that overlays actual vessel traffic with marine mammal migratory routes

  • Develop a component in the system which tracks commercial fishing activities

  • The developed system should allow arctic air pollution studies to be linked to pollutants for which emissions have been estimated

  • Develop a system for identifying areas at high risk of oil spills based on vessel traffic, hazards to navigation, and offshore oil and gas activity.

Phase 3

  • Prepare manual and PowerPoint presentation that lays out the proposed data system for dissemination to potential users

Organizations such as MARAD, U.S. EPA, BOEM, Pew Charitable Trust, and Arctic Council may find this study useful in disseminating scientific information about transportation related air quality and ecosystem trends in the arctic, and these organizations could lead or partner in the implementation of this project in conjunction with TRB.


The arctic is a largely undisturbed and biologically sensitive marine environment. As sea ice retreats and vessel activity increases, this sensitive marine environment will be exposed to a larger number of potential stressors. Findings from this research can be used by policy makers and regulatory agencies to monitor current and projected marine vessel traffic and the short and long-term effects of Artic shipping routes. This data will be critical for the development of plans to identify and mitigate the impacts these activities have on the Artic environment.

Sponsoring Committee:AW030, Marine Environment
Research Period:24 - 36 months
Research Priority:High
RNS Developer:Richard Billings, Ed Carr, and Daniel FitzPatrick
Source Info:EPA, Arctic Council, BOEM, NMFS, USCG AIS, IHS/Lloyds, and Clarkson
Date Posted:12/13/2017
Date Modified:12/22/2017
Index Terms:Shipping lanes, Arctic Regions, Northern Sea Route, Northwest Passage, Air quality, Air quality management, Ecosystems,
Cosponsoring Committees: 
Marine Transportation

Please click here if you wish to share information or are aware of any research underway that addresses issues in this research needs statement. The information may be helpful to the sponsoring committee in keeping the statement up-to-date.