The Non-melting Ice Caps and Maritime Connectivity

Over the past decade or so, there has been huge media focus on receding ice caps with anthropogenic global warming cited as the undeniable cause. If nothing was done, millions of polar bears and penguins would find themselves homeless and the oceans would rise to levels unseen since Moses was given the unenviable task of building an ark. In​ an attempt to bring about a reduction in man’s carbon dioxide emissions scientists claim as necessary to prevent flooding of biblical proportions, the powers that be have introduced wave-after-wave (excuse the pun) of punitive green taxes. Perhaps not sharing their desire to avert a climactic catastrophe, many in the shipping industry have undoubtedly prayed for ​ice melt and the subsequent opening of the northern passages that would bring about the holy grail of much shorter journey times.

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Source: United Nations Environment Programme

Not so long ago, it looked as though their prayers had been answered. As recently as August 2011, the BBC reported that melting summer ice had resulted in the smallest area of frozen water in northern polar regions since 1979. The maritime world rejoiced and a succession of tankers set sail from the Russian port of Murmansk along the Siberian coast (Northeast Passage) to deliver condensate gas to destinations in South-East Asia. Similarly, a lack of sea ice in Canada’s admittedly less navigable Northwest Passage/Northern Sea Route gave another option for vessels wishing to sail between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

However, to the chagrin of politicians, environmentalists and shipping companies alike, 2013 saw the return of vast swathes of arctic ice, which was reported to have grown 29 per cent in just one year. More than twenty yachts that had planned to sail the Northwest Passage were left ice-bound, while a cruise ship attempting the route was turned back. At the end of the year, the irony of all ironies came to pass. MV Akademik Shokalskiy, a Russian ship containing scientists on an expedition to discover the extent of ice melt in the Southern Ocean over the last 100 years, got itself trapped in ten-feet thick ice slabs. The Chinese icebreaker that subsequently went to the aid of its stranded passengers then found itself stuck in the heavy ice too. In the end, a helicopter had to do the rescuing.

But what does any of this have to do with maritime connectivity I hear you ask?

Firstly, one could argue that the presence of ​record sea ice is good and bad news for satellite operators and connectivity service providers. On the upside, as global temperatures continue refusing to go where climate change computer models decree they must, it looks as though the Northeast and Northwest pas​sages will remain unnavigable for the foreseeable future. As certain ships will not then be able to take these northern shortcuts, they will find themselves ocean-bound for a longer period of time than they would like. With many ship-owners choosing to pay for L-band services on a “Pay As You Go” basis, satellite costs will remain higher than they otherwise would have been, and so too will service provider revenues. McLean-based Iridium might be a little less pleased about the situation, however. The company can lay claim to being the world’s only truly global satellite operator as its constellation of 66 low earth orbit (LEO) L-band satellites cover every inch of the earth’s surface. Despite the name, Inmarsat’s Global Xpress solution is not a truly a global one – its satellites will be in fixed geostationary (GEO) orbit and will not cover the ice caps when it commences commercial operations later this year. Iridium must have hoped that melting ice would therefore help it steal a march on its big rival as it would have been in pole position (excuse the pun, again) to offer advanced bandwidth in the northern extremities with the launch of its next generation constellation, Iridium NEXT, in 2015.

The maritime connectivity market is covered in great detail in Valour Consultancy’s recently-published report on the topic. If you would like to learn more, click here​ to read a description of the research and download a summary brochure.

Until the next time, we’d like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Happy New Year.