Arctic communities perceive differently the impact of shipping on their environments

Sea ice can be a boundary for navigation, may isolate communities, but is also a platform for people and animals. Picture credit: Julia Olsen

Several communities across the Arctic are experiencing the growth in ship traffic. The environmental concerns of this rapid development differ greatly among the study communities.

Text: Julia Olsen, Natalie Ann Carter, Jackie Dawson and Grete Hovelsrud

Historically, the development of Arctic coastal communities has relied on shipping transportation that covers re-supply and mobility needs and brings new economic benefits.

With changing navigation trends, coastal residents are experiencing growing trends in the number of vessels and passengers.

Recently published research highlights that the environmental impact from this growth will be felt differently across the communities.

The development of context-specific assessments may improve planning and decision-making surrounding shipping development in the opening Arctic

Navigating in a changing region

The Arctic region, home to four million people, is changing rapidly. The most noticeable are climatic and environmental change, globalization and northward movement of numerous industries.

From a climatic perspective, the Arctic is warming two to three times faster than the rest of the globe (IPCC, 2018).

Sea ice decline in the Arctic waters is becoming one of the most noticeable changes. As a result, accessible Arctic waters are attracting several industries to the region such as extractive, fishing, and tourism, and opening new shipping routes.

These changes in turn contribute to the globalization of the Arctic and have cascading impacts, both positive and negative, on community members’ daily lives.

Arctic shipping, which comprises all types of vessels operating in the Arctic waters, has been driven by those climatic and socio-economic changes.

New types of vessels are entering the region while the navigating season is increasing. For example, fishing and marine tourism vessels operate in areas that were not earlier accessible due to sea ice conditions.

The Northeast Passage, a route along the Russian coast, that connects Europe and Asia was transited for the first time by a container ship in 2018. Ship traffic in the Canadian Arctic is significantly less than in the European Arctic, but nonetheless total traffic volume nearly tripled by kilometers travelled between 1990 and 2015.

Pleasure craft are becoming one of the fastest-growing segments of vessels, operating in those low-temperature areas.

Local community’s view

While increasing shipping brings socio-economic benefits to the communities, there are several environmental concerns. The results of the study are based on the perspectives, shared by members of three coastal communities.

It’s generally agreed that the Arctic coastal residents are the first to experience the environmental impacts of international, regional and local shipping operations.

The study illustrates that the impacts from shipping vary across the three study communities.

This diversity relates to two main factors: the communities’ use of the local environment and community characteristics and local shipping trends. The residents in Cambridge Bay (Canada), for example, are concerned by the icebreaking activities that destroy the platform for people and wildlife migration.

They worry shipping pollution may contaminate locally harvested fish and marine mammals; negatively affecting local food and livelihoods.

They consider it a necessity to have clean waters to secure the quality of country food.

At the same time, residents consider Cambridge Bay’s location as important to emergency and incident preparedness activities, critical in limiting the negative impacts from possible accidents in the Northwest Passage.

The island communities of Solovetsky and Longyearbyen have a longer experience with managing shipping activities including marine tourism.

Even though the impacts are limited, the residents are preoccupied with the indirect impacts on their landscapes during the summer season or cruise tourism season.

Members of these communities report the inappropriate behavior of visitors on sites (usually by refering to non-organized marine tourists and/or crew of marine vessels) that contradicts the established visiting guidelines (Photo: Svalbard guidelines).

Inappropriate behavior usually refers to disturbance of wildlife and littering. An increase in the number of visitors on Solovetsky generates garbage on-land that is not necessarily being transported or recycled afterwards.

Another environmental impact, marine litter, has become an emerging concern in the Barents Arctic. A high proportion of marine litter is associated with fishing and aquaculture activities.

It threatens life in the ocean and on land and affects the pristine picture of the Arctic.

Proactive planning

To mitigate the negative impacts, several global and regional regulations have been implemented during recent years including a set of requirements for navigating Polar waters.

One of the interviewees in Russia underlined that: “…the negative impact from shipping has been reduced to the minimum. This is regulated by strict environmental laws…”.

The Government of Canada has embarked on the Low Impact Shipping Corridors Initiative. It comprises a network of low-impact marine transportation corridors that encourage marine vessels to use identified routes that pose less risk and minimizes impacts.

The Low Impact Shipping Corridors is also meant to be a framework to guide future federal investments to support marine navigation safety in the North, including improved charting and increased hydrography.

Moreover, during recent years the industrial stakeholders and local communities have been involved in several initiatives that aim to limit the negative impact from shipping development while enhancing the positive.

The initiatives include the development of guidelines for the marine tourism sector (also developed by shipowners themselves, e.g. AECO); local and industrial engagement in search and rescue operations; improving visitor management; and in case of Longyearbyen residents and tourists help cleaning beaches of marine litter.

Getting prepared for the navigable Arctic

Increasing shipping means different things for different stakeholders. While the Arctic is becoming a part of the globalized world, the need to balance economic development and environmental management is emerging.

This study suggests that the impacts can be significant even in areas with lower levels of shipping activity. Understanding local use of the marine environment creates the potential to understand how local communities are affected by shipping.

The cases of Longyearbyen and Solovetsky also illustrate that the inclusion of local stakeholders and residents in decision-making increases local capacity to adapt to shipping growth.

Furthermore, the study suggests that the development of context-specific assessments may improve planning and the decision-making surrounding shipping development in the opening Arctic. This assessment should integrate different forms of use of said environments.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution for adaptation to the increase in Arctic shipping.

More information about this topic is available in the recently published scientific paper: Olsen Julia, Carter Natalie Ann, Dawson Jackie (2019). Community perspectives on the environmental impacts of Arctic shipping: case studies from Russia, Norway and Canada.