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There is a continuing debate about the possible emergence of an 'Arctic shipping boom' in Canada. Recent headlines outline both cargo shippers' plans to increase voyages through the Northwest Passage and an interminable list of risks associated with this possibility, while other stories call for a reality check and for promoters of the so-called boom in Arctic shipping to curb their excitement.

In a recently published article in the journal Climate Change, a group of climate change researchers out of the University of Ottawa and Environment Canada analyzed the historic changes in Arctic ship patterns between 1990 and 2012, looking for relationships between reductions in sea ice extent and thickness and increases in ship traffic due to the reduced ice improving access to the region.

They found that in the summer shipping season there has been an increase in activity over the past 20 years, with more intense increases over the past decade. Analysis of a dataset obtained from the Canadian Coast Guard revealed that overall vessel counts increased by 40 per cent from 2006 to 2007 and by 20 per cent from 2007 to 2012. Accounting for annual variability, total vessel volume has actually increased by more than 75 per cent over the past ten years.

These numbers do sound a bit 'boom' like, however the most significant increases in vessel activity is not attributed to major cargo transports or even resource development as is sometimes claimed. The increases are attributed to minor increases in fishing and community re-supply vessels, and more significant increases in tourism, research, and government support vessels. This does not support the theory of an Arctic shipping 'boom' but rather suggests an increased interest in visiting, experiencing, and understanding the region.

There is no doubt though that the possibility exists of further increases in shipping activity in the Canadian Arctic, including cargo transits. According to the U of Ottawa study the shipping season is getting longer. It found statistically significant increases in travel during the shoulder season months of June and November. The fall shoulder season is also when the greatest reductions in sea ice have occurred outside of the shipping season.

So is there a strong relationship between sea ice loss and increased ship activity? Findings from the U of Ottawa study reveal that some relationship between sea ice reductions and shipping volume increases do exist, but the linkage was not as strong as might be expected. This suggests that other factors are playing a more prominent role in influencing Arctic shipping patterns, such as tourism demand, community re-supply and construction needs, as well as research and resource exploration activities. It seems like the perception that the Arctic is opening up because of climate change is greater than the reality.

But even if the reductions in sea ice are only playing a small part in influencing the increase in activity in Arctic Canada, the potential consequences of climate change for Arctic ships and for the environment in general are significant. Changing ice conditions present more hazardous operating conditions than they did in the past. The presence of more ships, regardless of the factors influencing sector growth, in combination with more hazardous ice conditions mean there is an exponential increase in the probability of incidents that will compromise safety, security, and environmental sustainability.

The focus the Arctic has been getting of late, from both government and media, is warranted. If Arctic shipping activity continues to increase at current rates, increased investment in regional infrastructure, search and rescue capacity, pollution control measures, monitoring, research, and regulatory enforcement will all be necessary. Attention and investment in Arctic marine transportation is essential in order to both manage the mounting risks, but also to support industry growth and community development.

Jackie Dawson is Canada Research Chair in environment, society, and policy and assistant professor at the University of Ottawa; Larissa Pizzolato (M.Sc. Candidate) is a member of the Environment, Society, and Policy research group at the University of Ottawa