Posted: November 29, 2017 4:59 PM

Arctic Vessel Traffic Drops in 2017

By JOHN C. MARCARIO, Special Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Vessel traffic in the Arctic, and Bering Strait, has shrunk by 10 percent this year, with fewer cargo ships from Russia and a weaker than expected cruise ship presence being the key factors, Rear Adm. Michael F. McAllister, commander of 17th Coast Guard District in Alaska, said during a Nov. 29 address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Although vessel traffic numbers are down this year, McAllister remains bullish on the future.

“The ice is melting. …There will [be] more traffic … more risk of incidents,” he said during the “Maritime Futures and the Bering Strait Region” event. 

The Coast Guard, a branch of the Department of the Homeland Security, provides the chief U.S. presence in the area, but does not have a full-time station in the Arctic region.

“The next 150 years in the Arctic are certainly going to look different and we need to be prepared for that,” McAllister said.

According to CSIS, the Bering Strait is frozen for more than half the year, with vessel traffic occurring from July through November. But traffic, until this year, had been on the upswing. In 2008, there was 220 transits. Those numbers have increased to 340 in 2014 and 540 in 2015.

In 2016, the California-based Crystal Cruises’ ship Crystal Serenity sailed through the Arctic with a sold-out crowd of more than 1,700 people aboard. This year, McAllister said there was decrease in the number of people on the ship. The cruise liner announced earlier this year that it would not sail through the Arctic in 2018 and when it returned, possibly not until 2020, it will be with a smaller, more boutique-type vessel.

McAllister also said there had been a decrease in science ship activity as well, but the service could not attribute that drop to anything specific.  

He reiterated throughout his address that there will be greater traffic in future and that the long-term traffic projections support this.

Over the next decade, the Coast Guard anticipates, potentially, a four-fold increase in oil, gas and cargo ship traffic in the Arctic. Liquefied natural gas liners also could add to the traffic in the waters.

By not having a full-time base in the region, McAllister said the service is limited in capabilities and the ability to provide a complete sovereign presence.

“At any given time, I will only have one or two ships in the Arctic during the open-water seasons. … It’s just too big an area to cover with a small number of assets,” he said.

McAllister said he is encouraged about Congress providing funding to bolster the icebreaking and Fast Response Cutter fleets, but he added that the Coast Guard needs to make more investments if it wants to stay ahead of increasing vessel traffic in the region.

“Our current strategy is to provide mobile, seasonal and scalable presence, but there is a need to increase footprint if, and when, Arctic maritime traffic increases,” he said.

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