Alex Binkley on Northwest Passage

The Binkley Report

Northwest Passage holds little attraction for shipping lines

Image: Popular Northwest Passage routes. Based on a NASA image at
By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is He has also recently published his first novel, Humanity's Saving Grace.

Image: Cover of Humanity's Saving Grace, a novel by Alex Binkley. Click to purchase at Amazon.caWhile Russia is actively promoting Arctic shipping between Europe and Asia via its Northern Sea Route, the Northwest Passage through Canadian waters gets the cold shoulder from shipowners.

“The conditions aren’t there for what’s required for long-term planning of a voyage,” says Tim Keane, Senior Manager of Arctic Operations with FedNav of Montreal. The unpredictability of ice along the route, much higher insurance costs and incomplete charting of the region are among the factors that deter shipping lines from sailing the NWP.

Last year, FedNav’s Nunavik bulled its way through the passage to deliver a cargo to China. Two years before the Nordic Orion completed a voyage from Alaska to Europe.

Otherwise, shipping in the region consists of the resupply of Arctic communities during the summer, freighters in and out of the Port of Churchill in the late summer and early fall and a few cruise ships.

Rachelle Smith, spokeswoman for the Canadian Coast Guard, says that as of mid-July, only two cruise ships had reported they would be undertaking a full trip through the NWP this year. Twelve other ships including five cruise ships, have registered for trips into part of the NWP.

“It’s a tough market and no one is jumping at it,” notes Robert Lewis-Manning, President of the Canadian Shipowners Association. “No one thinks it’s a very viable route yet.”

Michael Broad, President of the Shipping Federation of Canada, which represents foreign shipowners, says none of his members had indicated any plans to use the NWP this year.

There have been fears that as the Arctic ice retreats because of climate change, there would be a surge of commercial shipping and wide-spread petroleum exploration in the Canadian North.

Keane says at best only three to four trips annually through the NWP would be possible. “That makes it a less certain business than delivering cargo in and out of the region to markets in Europe and elsewhere. It would take cargo that needs routing through the NWP to increase use of it.”

Speakers at a conference in Ottawa on Arctic transportation earlier this highlighted insurance, the uncertainty about where ice might be drifting, the lack of a port in the high Arctic and the aging conditions of Canada’s icebreakers as key factors that blunt interest in the NWP.

“The Arctic will not always be the shortest route between Europe and Asia,” said Frederic Lasserre of Laval University in Quebec City. He’s conducted interviews among international shipping companies on their interest in the NWP. “There was little interest other than for traffic destined into or out of the Arctic region.”

It’s unlikely container lines and shipowners that have to meet schedules would ever use the NWP because “of the risk of delays and changing routes,” he said. While bulk and liquid bulk shipments were a possibility, there aren’t many suitable ice-strengthened ships. “It’s too complex a route and there’s too much uncertainty. It’s not really competition for the Panama or Suez canals.”

The insurance costs for an Arctic voyage are about 25% higher than other destinations, he said. Drifting ice will always be a hazard and it’s impossible to predict when melt and freeze up will occur.”

The Canadian government has done little to encourage navigation of the NWP, he added. The Canadian Hydrographic Service has no dedicated ships to survey navigation conditions in the region.

Bernard Funston of Northern Canada Consulting and former chairman of the Canadian Polar Commission, said he didn’t foresee “an explosion of Arctic marine transportation any time soon.”

Many other countries have built icebreakers during the last 50 years “but all we have done is talk about it,” he said. Canada won’t have a fully Arctic capable icebreaker until 2022. Most of the existing icebreaker fleet is more than 30 years old.

Successive governments have promised better ships and a northern port, “but they haven’t followed through on their commitments,” he added.

Navigation charts don’t include routes that might be affected by the melting ice,” he noted. Ottawa hasn’t kept aids to navigation and marine charts up to date. “The marine side needs a lot of work.”