Even for the world’s biggest icebreaker, the best way through Arctic ice is to go around it. There’s an art to navigating an obstacle course of ice floes thick enough to smash a hole in a steel hull.
Experienced seamen know how to suss out the softer spots. They watch for young ice, the spongy white floes that haven’t had several years to compress and harden into an Arctic mariner’s worst nightmare.
In daylight, old hands swear they can see the multi-year ice ahead from its distinct blue colour.
What icebreaker captains crave are leads, the stretches of water that open up between floes when warmer weather or heavy storms fracture swaths of sea ice.
The best way to see those lanes in real time is from the air, which is why Coast Guard icebreakers carry helicopters that fly reconnaissance missions.
As more private vessels take a run at Canada’s Northwest Passage, most radio the Coast Guard for updates on where to find the best leads. When mariners get stuck, they call for an icebreaker to free them, at taxpayer expense.
The Canadian owners of MV Nunavik, a bulk carrier built last year to haul nickel through the Arctic, think they’ve got a better idea.
They are experimenting with small drones, much like the ones popular with hobby flyers, to give the captain an aerial view of hazards that lie ahead.
Aided by a high-resolution camera mounted on a drone, Nunavik Capt. Randy Rose and his crew steered her into the record books in October, when she became the first bulk carrier to transit the Northwest Passage without an escort.
The vessel carried 23,000 tons of nickel concentrate from Deception Bay, on Hudson Strait, to Bayuquan, a port on China’s Bohai Sea coast, east of Beijing.
At 188.8 metres (619 feet) long, with five cargo holds and three deck cranes, the Nunavik is bigger than any other icebreaker in the world, says Tom Paterson, a senior vice-president of Fednav, Canada’s largest owner of ocean-going, dry-bulk ships.
The Nunavik was built in Japan’s Marine United Corp. shipyards to work a 20-year contract for the Chinese-owned mining company Canadian Royalties Inc.
When she returns to Canada this spring, the ship is expected to plow her way through shoreline ice 12 metres (40 feet) thick.
“This is an icebreaking cargo vessel,” Paterson says from Montreal. “And there’s no government ship capable of entering where we are.”
That includes the Coast Guard’s biggest icebreaker, CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent, which is close to 50 years old, he added.
The Nunavik’s sister ship, MV Umiak I, is contracted to carry nickel concentrate year-round from northern Labrador’s Voisey’s Bay to Quebec City, for a subsidiary of Vale, the Brazilian mining giant.
“We built them knowing that we wouldn’t get an escort because the government doesn’t have the resources to give us an escort,” Paterson says.
“As the Canadian icebreaker fleet has declined, we were told by the government, ‘Don’t think in the future you’re going to get government escort. So build the ships to do it yourself.’ ”
Drones are Fednav’s next step in going it alone in Arctic waters. The company hopes drones will help give it an edge on competition that’s creeping up as global interest in the Arctic grows.
“There are certain areas in the Arctic where there’s a benefit from looking ahead,” Paterson said. “Because no one else is interested to go and take all sorts of images in areas where nobody’s there, except us, we need to see further ahead.
“Radars don’t work so well in ice. What we’re looking for is where the open water leads are. At the end of the day, the first rule of icebreaking is: avoid it.”
That often requires a zigzag route, which is a navigation feat in poorly charted waters, looking for leads from a ship’s bridge 40 metres (131 feet) above sea level.
“If we can take a camera and essentially take the captain’s eyes up to 500 feet, then he can see ahead a long, long way,” Paterson said. “It’s as simple as that. We don’t need the drone to go ahead of us. We need it to go above us.”
During last fall’s transit, a crew member operated a small drone by remote control from the ship’s deck and the camera transmitted live to the bridge over a wireless link.
To keep costs down, Fednav is experimenting with cheap drones, which are hard to keep aloft in heavy wind. In the Arctic, where gales are common, cameras mounted on helium balloons may make more sense. The company plans to try that next.
The Arctic is the fastest warming region on Earth. The world’s marine powers, led by the U.S. and Russia along with emerging challengers such as China, are anxious to see if that will open new opportunities for commerce and naval power projection.
Britain’s House of Lords invited Paterson to testify before its Arctic committee on the future of the Northwest Passage last fall.
Fednav’s ships have been navigating the Far North for more than 60 years and the company has learned the hard way that the Northwest Passage is a high-risk route. Paterson doesn’t see that changing even if the climate continues to warm.
“It will not be the next Suez or Panama canal, not even in 10 years or 20 years, or in our lifetime — and I’m not that old,” Paterson says. “The reason is that it doesn’t make money.”
The route will become busier, but as a percentage of world shipping traffic it will remain “very, very small,” Paterson predicts.
“The dangers are too great, the risks are too high, for the reward.”
For one thing, long stretches of the Northwest Passage, which is actually a choice of three main routes through Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, are not charted to modern standards.
The means large, heavy ships have to dodge shoals and other hazards without the aid of sophisticated navigation systems that guide through most of the world’s waterways.
Even in summers when there is less sea ice, warm air flowing over cold water creates dense fog. By law, captains must slow down when visibility is limited, which multiplies the cost of shipping.
When you add higher insurance costs for vessels transiting the Northwest Passage, the shorter distance between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans can easily be more expensive than traversing the longer, traditional routes.
Steaming through the Arctic saves a shipping company the Panama Canal toll, which can be as high as $170,000,” Paterson says. “But it’s paying that, or more, for its premium to the (insurance) underwriters for the risk of damage.”
Even in summer, the Northwest Passage is never completely free of ice and one misjudged hunk can ruin a captain’s day.
“These pieces of ice are like a minefield,” Paterson says. “A normal ship is not designed to come in contact with these massive pieces of ice. Even a ‘growler,’ a small piece of ice, is about the size of a Mini car.
“You can’t see that because it’s all below the surface. And if you hit that at 14 knots, or 20 knots, the ship will sink.”
At roughly 30,000 tons, with thirsty 30,000 horsepower engines and reinforced hulls to handle Arctic sea ice, the Nunavik cost around $90 million to build. That’s almost four times the price of a similar ship that isn’t built to polar standards, Paterson says.
That raises the shippers’ cost, which makes the Arctic transit even less attractive to most companies, he adds.
Malte Humpert, founder and executive of The Arctic Institute think tank, also doubts the Northwest Passage or its more developed competitor along Russia’s Arctic coast, the Northern Sea Route, “will become shipping routes of any global significance.”
Following four years of steady growth, which fuelled predictions of an Arctic shipping bonanza, traffic through Russia’s Northern Sea Route dropped by almost half last year.
Measured by cargo tonnage, the decline was even more dramatic: a 77 per cent fall from 1,355,897 tons in 2013 to just 274,000 tons last year.
Ice conditions are harsher in Canada’s Northwest Passage, where ice tends to linger longer around the hundreds of islands that form a vast archipelago. So it is less likely to see significant shipping growth, Humpert says from Washington, D.C.
“It will at most, and this is more likely for the Northern Sea Route than the Northwest Passage, become a transport route, mostly one way, for the export of resources produced in the Arctic, be it oil, gas or mineral, to the markets in Asia or Europe.”
Source: Toronto Star