By Michael A. Moore

Navigation in the Canadian Arctic has always been fraught with danger, as the fate of the Franklin Expedition mutely attests. Many changes have occurred in the 170 years since Franklin’s doomed quest to transit the Northwest Passage.

Icebreaking ship construction and navigation technologies have advanced by quantum leaps since that time, and Canada’s far-north sea lanes are more accessible due to the receding summer sea ice – but the lurking dangers of the far north and ice are still present, lying in wait for unprepared and careless navigators.

The challenge of successfully navigating the Northwest Passage has since been met – one example is Fednav’s new bulk ore carrier, MV Nunavik, which left Deception Bay in mid-September with a load of nickel concentrate, and arrived in Bayuaquan, China in mid-October. This trip made the Nunavik the first commercial vessel to navigate the Northwest Passage unescorted. The fact that the 188-metre Nunavik is built to IACS Ice Class 4 standards, can operate in the ice year-round, and was manned by an experienced Arctic crew, probably helped ensure the voyage was relatively uneventful.

“Everything went better than we had planned,” said Tom Paterson, Fednav Senior Vice-President, Shipowning, Arctic and Projects. “The Nunavik officers and crew as well as our on-shore support team are small but focused, they are the best in the world at what they do.

“Nunavik is a special ship and this was a special voyage. It was the first cargo to transit the Northwest Passage and across the Arctic from east to west. It was also the first to transit the Passage without an escort.” The Deception Bay-to-China ore delivery is probably a one-time journey, said Mr. Paterson. Nunavik’s normal ore delivery route will be to Europe.

Nunavik’s successful passage does not signal clear sailing for Canadian Arctic navigation. One top expert in navigating the Arctic ice argues that an “ice-free” Arctic is more of an urban myth than maritime reality. “Polar ice coverage is highly variable from one year to the next,” said Captain Duke Snider. “Ice is still present even during the brief summer navigation windows. The ice is mobile and remains a hazard to shipping, blocking routes and previously open passages.”

Captain Snider knows whereof he speaks. He is a Master Mariner with 27 years at sea, many of those in the Canadian Arctic. He retired from the Canadian Coast Guard in 2012 and is currently Senior Vice President of the Nautical Institute (NI) and Chair of the Institute’s Ice Navigator Working Group, as well as a member of the NI IMO delegation in ongoing discussions focused on developing a mandatory Polar Code.

There are numerous challenges to safe navigation in the Arctic – lack of charts for many areas, slow or no broadband satellite communications, the presence of only perhaps four or five Coast Guard vessels, no search-and rescue helicopters close by, no salvage tugs, and no oil spill response. But the most formidable and deadly opponent facing any mariner who dares to venture into the latitudes of the Far North is still ice. Ice comes in many forms, first year sea ice, multi-year ice, and shear ice, not to mention the hard spawn of icebergs, bergy bits and growlers, capable of tearing holes in the sides of unwary vessels. “The myths and legends of an easy-to-navigate, ice-free Arctic must be busted,” said Captain Snider. “Not to discount global climate change, but an ice-free Arctic is not happening yet – ice-free summers, maybe – but an ice-free Arctic is a long way down the road. It could be in the middle or latter part of this century.” The climate models are not exact, and there are at least five different models. The challenge to shippers is to understand that you will encounter ice somewhere along the way. “You could call it the wild west of the Arctic,” he said. “What mariners expect in the rest of the world is not yet available in the Arctic.”

That wild west is gradually becoming more mariner-friendly. Nunavik’s voyage was made easier by the use of new technologies and access to expensive satellite services that helped reduce the risks inherent in any journey through the icy waters of the Northwest Passage and the Arctic. “We have to constantly be thinking out of the box,” said Mr. Paterson. “Arctic navigation is not about speed, it’s about the best route. Nunavik used drones to gain an eagle-eye view of the ice passages, and get a good idea of where the floes were. They flew 500 feet above the ship and gave the wheelhouse a live image of the ice. The ice navigator could compare what was on the video monitor with the charts and radar. Using a drone is like using a 500-foot-high periscope. “Our No. 1 goal in Arctic operations is to reduce risk as much as possible,” he said. “Which leads to our No. 1 rule – avoid ice whenever possible. The best way to navigate ice is to avoid it.”

Nunavik’s drones did not venture very far from the ship, said Mr. Paterson. “It would be great if we could send them out for a look two or three miles ahead, but we really don’t want to lose one.” Fednav is experimenting with a camera mounted on a helium balloon tied to a long lanyard above the bridge to replace the drones.

Drones and balloons are not the only new technologies Nunavik used to overcome the challenges and lessen the risk of its Arctic passage. Enfotec, a Fednav subsidiary that supports Fednav’s operations in the Arctic and the Baltic regions with expertise in ice dynamics and remote sensing, developed IceNav, a shipboard navigation system that allows mariners to access and use satellite imagery and up-to-date ice and weather information. It also incorporates enhanced marine-based radar for the detection of sea ice. IceNav is a system that gives the bridge a Virtual Marine Radar that takes a signal from the ship’s main radar and provides a higher resolution image that can be overlaid onto a satellite image display.

“Fednav has the best ice navigation technology and crews in the world on Nunavik,” said Captain Snider, who served aboard Fednav’s M/V Arctic when it was still the world’s highest ice-class rated cargo ship. “They also have the money to buy access to the best private communications and navigation satellite over the Arctic. If you have to rely on Inmarsat, you are okay as long as you stay south along the commercial routes, but you have a low baud rate for data communications. If you want real-time satellite coverage, you have to pay and it’s expensive.”

The Canadian government recognizes the nation’s lack of and urgent need for adequate Arctic satellite coverage. “Currently, most of the telecommunication needs in remote areas are served by geostationary (GEO) communications satellites,” states a Canadian Space Agency (CSA) report. “These satellites are placed into the equatorial plane at the altitude of 36,000 km. The GEO satellites today offer a variety of communications and entertainment services to Canadians. “However, due to the orbit geometry, there are parts of the Canadian territory that cannot be covered at all by GEO satellites. There are also limitations to what GEO satellites can offer in the High Arctic, particularly for mobile services used by ships, planes and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). That leaves part of the Canadian territory in the Arctic region without access to secure, reliable and high-capacity telecommunication solutions.

The report continues to state that “Weather in the arctic can be harsh and fast-changing. It is the role of government to ensure accurate short-term weather and long-term climate forecasts. These forecasts are important to the functioning of the economy and for the safety and quality of life of Canadians.”

“The current development of the third generation of GEO satellites will provide an image of the Earth disc every 15 minutes, from 60° south to 60° north at 0.5-2.0 km spatial resolution,” Capt. Snider said. “That is a golden standard in modern state-of-the-art meteorology. However, the spatial resolution rapidly degrades above 60o, due to the earth’s curvature, leaving polar regions without coverage from GEOs.

CSA’s solution to the lack of adequate Arctic satellite coverage is the Polar Communications and Weather Project. The government of Canada is exploring options for this potential Canadian-led project, with potential international partners, to satisfy requirements in Satellite Communications, Earth Observation coverage of the Arctic, and Space Situational Awareness. The Polar Communications and Weather project will explore technical solutions but is not yet an approved government project. Telesat Canada and Com Dev teamed with MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. of Vancouver to bid on the tender calling for information on building a satellite system capable of providing Arctic weather data and communications for the military and federal departments, according to an article in the Ottawa Citizen.

A recent report by the Office of the Auditor General of Canada titled “2014 Fall Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development” calls attention to even more areas critically in need of improvement to remove some of the risk from Arctic navigation. The report found that many higher-risk areas in the Canadian Arctic are inadequately surveyed and charted, and that capacity for this work is limited. Only a small percentage of the region has modern hydrographic coverage. This means that many charts available to mariners may not be current or reliable.

“Canada’s Arctic waters are vast and its coastlines are among the longest in the world,” the report states. “Although it is not reasonable to expect the entire Arctic to be surveyed to modern standards today, we did expect there to be reliable information for the higher-risk areas of the Arctic where vessel traffic is most prevalent, such as approaches to northern communities. However, we found that large areas of Canadian Arctic waters, including many of the main traffic corridors, have either non-existent or inadequate hydrographic data coverage. Canadian Hydrographic Service estimates that about one per cent of Canadian Arctic waters has been surveyed to modern standards.”

The report also found that the Canadian Coast Guard has not reviewed systems of aids to navigation in the Arctic, according to its program directives, and it has made little progress in reviewing requests by the shipping industry for new or modified aids to navigation. As a result, the Canadian Coast Guard cannot provide assurance to mariners that aids to navigation meet their needs for safe and efficient navigation in the higher-risk areas of the Arctic.

The Canadian Coast Guard was further taken to task in its reviews of aids to navigation. “We found that only 23 of 43 systems in the Arctic outside the Mackenzie River and Great Slave Lake areas have had an initial review, and only 2 of these 23 were reviewed as part of the cyclical review process,” the report indicated. “We also found that despite repeated requests by the shipping industry for new or modified aids to navigation in 30 locations in the Arctic, reviews of only two of these locations were conducted by the Canadian Coast Guard. Industry stakeholders have expressed concern that there has been little progress in addressing their requests. An example of a request by industry is illustrated in the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s investigation report on a grounding event in Chesterfield Narrows. The Canadian Coast Guard acknowledges that it has resources to maintain its existing network of aids to navigation only, not to cover the addition of new aids.”

Fednav’s Paterson recognizes the value of the latest techno-tools, better charts, and aids to navigation, but he also recognizes that “the most important tool we have is a great team with ice experience on board. “The Northwest Passage is a destination, not a transit route,” said Mr. Paterson. “It’s a place to drop off cargo, not for cargo transit – you need a high ice-class ship and then it’s only useful for two or three months of the year.”