Arctic Satellite Image of the Week: Northern Sea Route – Open for business?

Monthly sea ice data from NSIDC, 2014. NSR Port Data from NSR Administration, 2013.

Monthly sea ice extent data from NSIDC, 2014. NSR Port Data from NSR Administration, 2013.

Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration has received 604 applications for transits this year. The bulk of sailings take place on the western part of the Northern Sea Route (NSR); last year, only 71 made the entire voyage (full statistics here; PDF). Reports regarding the start of the sailing season on the NSR this year are conflicted. On August 27, the Maritime Executive noted that the Russian sailing route’s northeastern passage, which remains frozen longer than the northwestern part, would open two weeks early early. But on September 9, Bloomberg published an article saying that  the closing was delayed. They quoted Sergey Balmsov, head of the NSR Information Office, as saying, “Due to ice conditions, active transit navigation on NSR starts later this season.”

Satellite imagery shows low sea ice concentration and extent along NSR

August 2014 Arctic sea ice anomaly image from the University of Hamburg's

August 2014 Arctic sea ice anomaly image from the University of Hamburg’s

What does the satellite record show? An image of sea ice anomaly from the University of Hamburg’s Integrated Climate Data Center shows that there has actually been a lower concentration of sea ice along the NSR than on average. The red areas denote where sea ice concentration is lower than normal, while blue areas represent higher than normal sea ice concentration. Their image is based on data from a variety of European sources listed on their website.

Similarly, the animated GIF at the top of this post showing comparison maps of Arctic sea ice extent between 2013 and 2014, which I generated using data from the United States’ National Snow and Ice Data Center, reveal that the extent around the Russian Arctic seems lower as well, particularly north of the Laptev Sea. The orange dots represent all of the ports of call for ships sailing to or from the NSR in 2013. (Sea ice extent for the entire Arctic is about the same as last year, as the chart in the middle of this NSIDC website shows.) On September 17, the Arctic sea ice extent reached its annual minimum, the sixth-lowest in the satellite record (just as Antarctica hit a record high sea ice extent when compared to the past 35 years).

As of this time last year (late September), 38 ships, most of them carrying various types of fuel, had made the voyage. Many of those transits took place in July and August. Yet it was not until August 20 of this year that the first tanker transited the NSR, according to World Maritime News. Additionally, the NSR Information Office has not published any data on transits that have taken place this shipping season, which are normally visible in the box on the top right of their website. That could mean that comparatively little fuel and cargo has transited the NSR at all this summer.

However, TradeWinds reports that Dynagas’ Arctic Aurora, an LNG tanker currently on a five-year lease to Norway’s Statoil (and interestingly, built by South Korean shipping company Hyundai Heavy Industries), has received permission to sail the NSR between September 13 and October 25. This nearly six-week period gives the vessel some flexibility, as ships transit the NSR within three weeks on average. It’s rumored that the tanker will deliver liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Hammerfest to an eastern destination, likely in Asia. Currently, Marine Traffic shows the vessel as somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Morroco.

Is there a need for speed?

Speed is often emphasized as a big selling point of the NSR. A story from ClassNK posted by gCaptain, a shipping newsletter, gives a more detailed breakdown of the time savings from various Asian destinations (Japan would save the most time when shipping to destinations in northern Europe, followed by South Korea and northern China). However, since the global financial crisis began in 2008, when world trade and container shipping volumes tanked dramatically, shipping companies have actually slowed down their transit times. The Economist notes that “slow steaming,” a practice in the industry to save fuel, has caused the average transit time from China to Europe to increase from 21 to 26 days. Seventeen out of the 20 biggest container lines are either just breaking even or losing money.

So when container shipping companies are lengthening travel times in order to save fuel and money, that means they’re unlikely to be enthusiastic about the shortcut provided by the NSR, especially when the escort and transit fees associated with the Arctic passage make the total bill 10% higher than more southerly routes [1]. If anything, it will be fuel tankers like Arctic Aurora and not cargo ships that make waves in the NSR in the near future.

One idea was recently floated at the World Food Moscow exhibition, though: increasing the number of reefer ships (refrigerated container ships) that deliver seafood from Kamchatka, in the Russian Far East, to consumers in Moscow and St. Petersburg [3]. The Trans-Siberian Railway normally brings this cargo, but due to a lack of rolling stock, companies are looking to the seas to transport their fishy products. The NSR: bringing smoked salmon to Muscovites’ tables.


[1] Wilhelmsen Ships Service (2012).

[2] Fish News (2014) (in Russian).

With Keystone XL Delay, Alberta Looks North

Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. Could this sleepy Arctic hamlet one day be an oil export terminal? Photo: Flickr/Ian McKenzie.

Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories. Could this sleepy Arctic hamlet one day be an oil export terminal? Photo: Flickr/Ian McKenzie

Keystone XL, the $5.4 billion, 1,897-kilometer pipeline that would transport crude oil from the Alberta tar sands across the border through Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska, has been debated for six years. Today, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper proclaimed,”I think its eventual approval under the right circumstances is inevitable.”

Much the same was said for years about the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline (MVP), which would have brought natural gas from the Beaufort Sea through the Northwest Territories to Alberta. It was rejected by the Trudeau government in the 1970s after a slump in global energy prices turned it into an economically unviable project. In actuality, this excuse was basically cover for the fact that the pipeline was unwarranted on social grounds given that it crossed swaths of land claimed by Aboriginal and First Nations groups. Just as the MVP seemed to again gather steam in the 2000s, a fracking boom in the Lower 48 put plans on hold indefinitely once again due to lack of economic viability. Now, despite Harper’s confidence, Keystone XL’s approval is hardly inevitable due to the obstacles in its way that extend far beyond President Obama’s desk.

One of those obstacles is that oil producers and refiners are increasingly choosing to transport the black stuff by rail. Rail cars in Canada carried 20% more oil in 2013 than they did in 2012. Due to the regulatory obstacles, lawsuits, various land holdings disputes (from private landowners to aboriginal land claims) and environmental assessments that prevent a pipeline from being quickly constructed, rail transport is an easier option even though it is in principal more risky. Oil shipment by rail generated 2 incidents per billion ton-miles annually, while pipeline shipment caused 0.6 incidents over the same time and distance [1].

Without more pipeline approvals, rail shipment could further increase. Although the U.S. already has 4.2 million kilometers of pipeline and Canada 825,000 kilometers, it is rare to see new monumental projects being undertaken equivalent to, say, the epically-named Power of Siberia pipeline, which will carry natural gas from Russia to China. Many of the major pipelines under discussion in the U.S. – Keystone XL and Northern Gateway, for instance – have been debated for years, although it should be noted that the other three phases of the larger Keystone pipeline system have opened since 2010.

This terrestrial transportation of fossil fuels in the Canadian provinces and Lower 48 differs significantly from the Arctic, where the future seems bright for shipping oil and natural gas via ships. To illustrate, there’s Mikhail Ulyanov, which carried the first barrels of oil from Russia’s Prirazlomnoye offshore field north of the Arctic Circle to Rotterdam. There’s also the the fleet of Korean-built liquefied natural gas (LNG) tankers that will carry the fossil fuel from Russia’s Yamal Peninsula to markets in East Asia if and when the project comes on line. As the map below illustrates, railways are few and far between in the Arctic, although there are plans for a potential rail corridor in northern Finland. This railway would generally cover cargo, however, and not oil and gas, which can more easily be shipped along the Norwegian coastline. Besides stunning fjords, the shores of this Scandinavian country are graced with well-developed port infrastructure. Yet in contrast to the Arctic, pipelines clearly out-distance railways in sub-Arctic places like Alaska, Alberta, and western Siberia.

A map of pipelines and railroads. Note the lack of either infrastructure in the Arctic.

The potential routings of the Arctic Energy Gateway, along with pipelines and railroads in the northern part of the globe. Notice the sheer lack of either infrastructure north of the Arctic Circle.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a future for pipelines in North America, let alone the North American Arctic. While the MVP would have brought Arctic gas south to Alberta, plans have been floated to turn the tables and transport oil from Alberta north to the Arctic. As Keystone XL awaits a final decision, Andrew Breiner at Climate Progress reports on a study on the “Arctic Energy Gateway” commissioned last year by the Government of Alberta and Canadian company Canatec, which provides services to the Arctic offshore oil and shipping sectors. Instead of shipping oil from Alberta south across the U.S. border, the Arctic Energy Gateway would ship oil north from Alberta to two possible terminuses: one in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, and one in Churchill, Manitoba, which has already witnessed some port growth in recent years. Oil and gas coming out of Tuk would go to Asian markets in summer, while the products coming out of Churchill, Canada’s polar bear capital, would go to Europe. The report finds that capacity of the Arctic Energy Gateway could reach a high of 100,000 barrels a day; by contrast, Keystone XL promises to move a whopping 830,000 barrels daily.

The Arctic Energy Gateway idea is popular with NWT Premier Bob MacLeod, whose territory sits on sizable oil and gas shale prospects that have no feasible way to get to market. Frustrated by the lack of a pipeline in any direction, this summer, he expressed to CBC, “We need to find markets for our oil and gas potential. The United States they have significant amounts of shale gas. Obviously we have to look at other markets. One of the ways is to look at Asia, China and those places.” MacLeod echoed a sentiment mentioned in the report, which states,

“Second, this route offers Alberta the opportunity to get to markets that are not just the US, and also to markets that are both Atlantic and Asian. The increased breadth of these market opportunities and the flexibility to choose the ones with optimal returns is a significant increased benefit offered by the Arctic Energy Gateway.”

Whereas Keystone XL would continue Canada’s reliance on the U.S. for oil exports, to where it already sends close to 99% of its products, sending the oil north to the NWT – assuming Arctic shipping conditions were ideal, and that’s a big assumption – might permit Canada a better chance to sell its oil sands products to markets in Asia. But since the Arctic Energy Gateway’s capacity would be less than 1/8 that of Keystone XL, the opportunity to sell to China, Japan, and South Korea might still not stack up.

Tuktoyaktuk is a hamlet of fewer than 1,000 people that will soon be reachable by an all-weather road, which I covered in January. Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved construction on what will be the final extension of the Dempster Highway, connecting Canada from sea to sea to sea and realizing former prime minister John Diefenbaker’s dreams. Down the line, the creation of an all-weather road could facilitate additional megaprojects like a pipeline. In fact, another proposed Arctic pipeline, the Alaska Gas Pipeline, would carry natural gas from Prudhoe Bay and parallel the Alaska Highway from Fairbanks to Yukon. Tuk’s all-weather road may make it easier for tourists to come to visit this remote Arctic outpost, but it might also make it easier for resource extraction companies to come, too. Yet one challenge to the feasibility of pipelines (and roads and railroads) crossing the Canadian Arctic is melting permafrost. This is a problem facing Arctic Russia, too, which prefers to ship its oil and gas via the Northern Sea Route. Just as Arctic sea ice melts, so does the permafrost, creating a quandary for intermodal Arctic transportation.

Canatec, the authors of the report on the Arctic Energy Gateway, however, see no quandary when it comes to choosing between Keystone XL and Arctic Gateway, however. Incredulously, they argue on page 122,

“Our initial analysis suggests that the socio-political and environmental climate may be more favourable to an arctic route than to a US or BC pipeline route. Alberta promoting a northern route might gain allies rather than enemies.”

Given the fight that Greenpeace has put up to Russia’s Arctic oil developments, it seems likely that Alberta would make at least a few enemies by pursuing this northern route. It’s contentious enough to get oil out of the Arctic. To bring it in by pipeline would be another battle entirely.


[1] The Fraser Institute, 2013.

Arctic Satellite Image of the Week | Bárðarbunga: Of Lava Lakes and Reservoirs

NASA/USGS TrueColor Landsat 8 image of Bardarbunga and Halslon reservoir, September 6, 2014.

NASA/USGS TrueColor Landsat 8 image of Bardarbunga and Halslon Reservoir, September 6, 2014.

Iceland’s temperamental geography has gone haywire again with Bárðarbunga, the latest volcano to erupt under the Vatnajökull ice cap. It’s no secret that Iceland is the land of fire and ice, and the above remotely sensed image from NASA’s Landsat 8 satellite captures those elements beautifully (link to full resolution). September 6 proved to be a clear day over southwest Iceland, allowing the ice cap to visibly stand in stark contrast to the streak of red hot lava flowing just to the north of it. The two enormous craters that have appeared in the ice cap are also visible, which Ben Orlove writes about in more detail over on Glacier Hub. It’s thought that the ice may have subsided due not to melting, but rather to the movement of magma underneath the ice. A few day prior, with its Earth Observing-1 satellite, NASA also captured some additional high-resolution images of the volcano and lava lake. Note that in the image above, NASA/USGS has rendered the colors so that the ice cap appears nearly blue. When I processed the image (link to full resolution), the ice cap appears white, but since I was unable to remove the smoke, the lava field is not as visible. I also generated a thermal image, below, using Landsat 8’s band 10. The lava field is definitely hot – especially when compared to the cold ice.

Landsat 8 thermal image (Band 10) over Bardarbunga and Halslon reservoir.

Landsat 8 thermal image (Band 10) over Bardarbunga and Halslon reservoir.

My rendering of the Landsat 8 image over Bardarbunga and Halslon Reservoir. September 6, 2014. Image: NASA/USGS.

My rendering of the Landsat 8 image over Bardarbunga and Hálslon Reservoir. September 6, 2014. Image: NASA/USGS.

There’s a lot more to this picture than just the lava field, however much as it catches the eye, for the satellite image contains both fire and water. On the right side, there is a feature that looks like big spindly lake, which is actually a giant 57-square kilometer reservoir. Called Hálslon Resevoir, this artificially-created body of water didn’t exist prior to 2006, when the area was deliberately flooded during construction of a huge dam, known as the Kárahnjúkar hydropower plant. The Icelandic government’s decision to build this facility and associated aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður (east Iceland), owned and operated by the American company Alcoa, was one of the most controversial decisions in Iceland in recent years. The government even contradicted a recommendation by the Icelandic National Planning Agency not to move forward after it determined that there would be numerous negative consequences for the environment in its impact assessment. The government’s decision in favor of construction resulted in numerous protests and even a documentary called Draumalandið (Dreamland)A short clip of the film, which shows why people were so angry, is available on YouTube.

Aluminum production is extremely energy intensive. One kilogram of the material takes 18-26 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy, whereas steel only requires 6 kwH, so companies naturally want to locate near powerful and clean sources of energy, like Iceland’s churning glacial rivers. Hydropower is not as environmentally friendly as it may seem, however, especially when it necessitates the flooding of land into which numerous Icelandic lava lakes could fit – not to mention pink-footed geese and caribou, species whose habitat was reduced by the reservoir. But many of the powers that be in Iceland, from the state-run energy company, Landsvirkjun, to the country’s banks, have a vested interest in hydropower and aluminum production. Aluminum – not fish – now represents Iceland’s single biggest export. Bjarni Mar Gylfason, chief economist for the Federation of Icelandic Industries, once noted, “We export energy in the form of aluminum.” Until subsea cables are built to the United Kingdom, there are few other ways ‘s simply no other way for Iceland to feasibly export its excess energy.

“Kárahnjúkar” became a byword for what many perceived to be the sell-out of the Icelandic government to developmental interests. Some have even hypothesized that the huge amount of foreign capital that flooded the country to fund the construction of the project could have been partly responsible for the Icelandic financial crisis in 2007-2008. A consortium of banks, including the UK’s Barclays, lent $400 million to Landsvirkjun to finance Kárahnjúkar ‘s construction, which cost over a billion dolars.

As a consolation prize for environmentalists and others who contested Kárahnjúkar for so long, the Icelandic government created what’s now the largest national park in the country: Vatnajökull National Park. Within the boundaries of this very park, Bárðarbunga is belching out its ash and lava. Had the volcano erupted some 44 kilometers to the east, it would have been right under the Hálslon reservoir, though the distance is almost too close for comfort as is. In the satellite image, you can see the ash cloud billowing out over the man-made lake. That ash cloud could deposit sediment into the reservoir, theoretically shortening the lifespan of the Fljótsdalur hydropower plant downstream. Sedimentation is already a potential problem for Hálslon due to the mineral-rich glacial rivers that feed into it. Once too much sediment becomes trapped in a reservoir, it can no longer provide as much power as intended.

If Hálslon Reservoir overflows, it can generate a waterfall more powerful than Dettifoss. Photo: Flickr/Richard Gould.

If Hálslon Reservoir overflows, it can generate a waterfall more powerful than Dettifoss. Photo: Flickr/Richard Gould.

Crazily, the waterfall that can be created next to the dam when the reservoir spills over can be more powerful than Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. Dettifoss also served, memorably, as the immense waterfall in the Ridley Scott film, Prometheus. Landsvirkjun boasts on its website:

“When the water level reaches the spillover level it creates the waterfall Hverfandi at the western end of the Kárahnjúka Dam, rushing down to the gorge rim and then surging downward 90-100 metres into the Hafrahvammagljúfur Gorge. The waterfall is powerful and can become more water rich than Dettifoss.”

So much for Iceland being a land of wild, unspoiled nature. Man’s ability to build things more powerful than some of the strongest forces in nature is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. What might also fall under those two descriptors is research currently being done by scientists with the Iceland Deep Drilling Project, who have managed to produce geothermal energy from magma. I can already see the commercial opportunities abounding for aluminum products. Coca-Cola cans: forged by volcanoes.

A close-up of the ash cloud and underlying lava. September 6, 2014. NASA/USGS.

A close-up of the ash cloud and underlying lava. Will they one day power the production of soda cans? September 6, 2014. NASA/USGS.