Protecting The Arctic

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Container Ship

Safer Arctic Shipping

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of our planet. Climate change is reducing the extent and thickness of seasonal sea ice and creating a longer ice-free season, exposing the region to increasing ship traffic. That means both benefits and risks to this rich marine ecosystem and the people who live there. More vessel traffic may create or expand economic opportunities for remote Arctic communities. But it poses serious hazards as well, from oil spills to air and water pollution to ship strikes that kill whales and other marine mammals.

Increasing vessel traffic in the Arctic could put wildlife and local communities at greater risk from oil spills, accidents and pollution. Without oversight, growth in traffic will increase the threat of a major oil spill in these spectacular waters.

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The Problem

More Ship Traffic = Increased Risks

It is not hard to imagine how a shipping accident in the remote Arctic, with its extreme weather and rapidly changing conditions, could become a crisis. If a passenger ship hit an iceberg in the Arctic Ocean, the nearest search and rescue personnel and equipment could be hundreds of miles away or delayed by storms and rough seas. If an oil tanker ran aground in poorly charted Arctic waters, it could cause a catastrophic spill threatening thousands of marine mammals, seabirds and fish.

Without preventive measures, more vessel traffic will increase air and water pollution and create underwater noise that’s detrimental to marine life. Without careful management, additional ship traffic could also cause conflicts with subsistence hunters and others who rely on a healthy ocean for their livelihoods. Ships traveling from distant areas could also introduce invasive species to Arctic waters.

Generalized Arctic Ocean Shipping Routes v1- with locator map
© Ocean Conservancy
Ice-free summers may be a reality in the Arctic by mid to late century. That will allow the creation of shorter trans-polar shipping routes that halve the transit distance between Eastern Asia and Europe or North America through Russia’s Northern Sea Route, Canada’s Northwest Passage or a new route across the Central Arctic Ocean.

It’s not a matter of if but when Arctic shipping will increase. That’s why it’s important to act now to put new shipping measures in place to protect the Arctic marine environment and the people who call this spectacular place home.


“Arctic shipping is poised to increase rapidly as the ice-free season lengthens. Now is the time to put in place measures that will prevent accidents and protect communities and the marine environment.”

Andrew Hartsig
Arctic Program Director


Case Study: Oil Spill Led to Safer Shipping in Aleutian Islands

CaseStudy_Selendang Ayu_Doug Helton, NOAA_NOS_ORR
© Doug Helton / NOAA
In 2004, the Malaysian-registered cargo ship M/V Selendang Ayu ran aground during a storm near Dutch Harbor in Alaska’s western Aleutian Islands. The ship broke in half, spilling about 350,000 gallons of oil and diesel. Six crew members died when a Coast Guard rescue helicopter was engulfed by a wave and crashed. The oil slick covered 86 miles of shoreline, killed almost 1800 birds and six sea otters, temporarily closed nearby fisheries and threatened to shut down seafood processing in the largest fishing port in the U.S.

The disaster led to a comprehensive risk assessment of shipping in this region. After years of work, in 2015 the International Maritime Organization designated protections for five marine areas to ensure large vessels avoid dangerous and environmentally sensitive Aleutian shorelines. That helps prevent groundings, protects important coastal habitat and allows more time for tugs and emergency crews to respond if a ship’s engines fail.



As the Arctic melts more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, many more vessels will enter its waters. We must be proactive in addressing the possible negative impacts this increasing traffic may have on the Arctic marine ecosystem and the people of the region.

Sarah Bobbe
Arctic Program Manager

The Solution

Support safer Arctic shipping measures

Now is the time to work with communities and regulators to develop measures that can prevent Arctic shipping accidents and protect marine habitat and wildlife. Here are key changes you can support:

  • Designate safe shipping lanes through the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off Alaska’s northern coast and in the international waters of the Central Arctic Ocean that avoid sensitive marine habitat.
  • Ban ships from the use, or carriage for use, of heavy fuel oil—the world’s dirtiest fuel—in the Arctic by supporting the International Maritime Organization’s work on this important reform.
  • Secure more oil spill response equipment for remote Arctic coastal communities and train emergency responders.
  • Limit air pollution and water pollution from ships, and reduce underwater noise that disturbs marine mammals.
  • Improve vessel tracking, enhance maritime communications and promote safer navigation.
    Container ship in the sea at winter time
    © a_medvedkov / Adobe Stock

Increasing vessel traffic in the Arctic could put wildlife and local communities at greater risk from oil spills, accidents and pollution. Without oversight, growth in traffic will increase the threat of a major oil spill in these spectacular waters.

Take Action

Ocean Conservancy has been at the forefront of protecting the Arctic Ocean for decades. With your help, we can work on policy and legal protections for a place that’s like nowhere else in the world.

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