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Arctic shipping a balance of risk and reward

The Nordic Orion plies the Northern Sea Route off the north coast of Russia.

Insuring the giant ships that traverse the Arctic and Northern Canadian waters is a growing business, but one that involves dealing with a great deal of uncertainty.

Warmer weather has opened waterways that used to be clogged with ice, but much of Canada's Arctic territory is uncharted and the capacity to rescue ships in trouble is limited. Governments are concerned about possible pollution from spills of fuel or cargo. And on top of that, insurers have limited claims data on which to base underwriting decisions.

Despite the problems, major insurers see potential in writing policies for arctic shipping, as melting sea ice makes it more feasible to ship goods from Europe and North America through northern passages to Asia. In addition, offshore oil and gas exploration and mining activity in the north is expected to tilt more and more shipping toward arctic waters in the years ahead.

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Six months ago, the Nordic Orion became the first commercial bulk ship to traverse the Northwest Passage, delivering coal to Finland from Vancouver. The route was far shorter than the voyage through the Panama Canal, an important advantage since the shipping industry is under pressure to find more fuel-efficient routes that can minimize costs and possible environmental damage.

"As the Northwest passage opens up it's a big opportunity, but it's also a big challenge to do it in a responsible manner. It's all unfamiliar territory," said Martin Thompson, senior vice-president of global specialty lines in the Canadian office of British insurer RSA Insurance Group, a major global shipping insurer.

Changing ice conditions make operating in the Arctic treacherous. The average number of shipping casualties – ships that were sunk or lost to fire, for example – has climbed to 45 a year between 2009 and 2013, from seven a year during the 2002 to 2007 period, Allianz says.

Search and rescue efforts are more difficult to organize in Canada than other countries due to a lack of infrastructure development, insurance industry experts say. However, that may change as the region becomes more developed. The federal government has launched initiatives that promote sovereignty, including adding offshore military patrol ships.

Shipping companies insure their fleets through annual hull and machinery property insurance policies, as well as taking out liability insurance against risks such as pollution. For the majority of global clients, Arctic waters are excluded from the standard sailing areas covered by these policies. They must call their insurers to obtain separate coverage for the arctic. The insurers then undergo a risk assessment process that can be completed in as quickly as one week, but more often with months of planning time.

The most pressing considerations are to determine whether the vessel is prepared for the icy waters it could encounter, and whether the ship's crew is prepared for the emergency conditions they might encounter in Arctic waters, said Sven Gerhard, global marine head at Allianz. There's less time to perform rescues in Northern Canada where changeable conditions can push ships into the ground or ice.

"We're always interested in emergency protocols and backup plans, but it becomes more important here because you don't have a lot of infrastructure around you to offer support if something goes wrong," Mr. Thompson said.

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There are other risks to shipping through the Arctic, such as environmental impact. RSA has worked with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to create interactive shipping, landscape and ice maps, which the company said it used in its underwriting process for the Nordic Orion. RSA and the WWF have also teamed up to study the impact melting sea ice would have on shipping in the Northwest Passage in the coming years.

Insurers declined to comment on the size of their businesses, and see the opportunity as a long-term proposition. Mr. Thompson says he expects shipping traffic through the Northwest Passage will grow slowly in the next 20 years.

Allianz does not actively seek out new clients to insure, Mr. Gerhard said, instead offering coverage to existing clients who are gradually moving north. "We see increasing need, and we are following the world trade patterns," he said. "We also have to see how we can accommodate the risk."

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