Prospects for Commercial Marine Navigation Across the Arctic Region

By MarEx 2011-09-27 14:34:32

By Harry Valentine

While the environmental movement has warned that global warming and elevated sea levels would disrupt coastal regions, the may be some possible benefit for the marine transportation sector. Higher water levels that deeper draft ships will gain access to more bays, inlets and navigable rivers. A new theory of changing weather patterns challenges the carbon dioxide theory of global warming. Research from CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) advises that changes in the sun, the Milky Way galaxy and gamma radiation are contributing factors behind the erratic weather patterns. Such weather patterns may allow for the installation of technology that could produce a navigable passage through the Arctic region

For decades, Hudson Bay and the Upper Great Lakes have been open to maritime operations during the northern summer months. Historical records suggest that several centuries ago, the Arctic region may have undergone a period of reduced ice cover. In the modern era, erratically changing weather patterns may assist efforts to develop a navigable passage across the Arctic region, between the Bering Strait and either Hudson Strait or Davis Strait. So far, only icebreaker ships have been able to sail part way through that passage and with great difficulty. 

The energy sector is involved in much exploration in the Arctic region, where much untapped oil, natural gas and a variety of minerals and other natural resources may occur naturally. There would likely be a future need for oil tanker ships and bulk carrier ore ships to navigate through the Northwest Passage. Such navigation may become possible courtesy of the installation of specialized technology plus geological features that are likely to be present in the Artic bedrock. The presence of oil and natural gas is often accompanied by other geological phenomena, such as giant salt pillars deep in the earth’s bedrock.

Salt pillars may measure up to 1-mile in diameter by up to 6-miles in vertical height, usually with a dome-shaped peak located some 2000-ft to 6000-ft below ground surface. Hence the term “salt domes”. Exploration companies discovered the existence of salt domes decades ago. The North American natural gas industry flushes the rock salt from suitable salt domes and uses the empty cavern to store compressed natural gas at high pressure. The electrical energy sector has begun to use salt domes to store compressed air at high pressure to produce pneumatic batteries that can store several hundred to several thousand megawatt-hours of electrical energy.

Pneumatic batteries also offer a method by which to keep ice-covered waterways navigable during winter months. Energy companies that discover natural gas under Arctic seafloor would need to install submerged pipelines to transfer the gas to land-based pipelines. Undersea pipelines already carry natural gas under the relatively shallow North Sea, from Norway to the UK. The shallow water depth of less than 600-ft across much of Hudson Bay, the Foxe Basin, through a major section of Canada’s northwest passage and along the northern coast of Alaska is comparable to the depth of the North Sea.

The may be scope to adapt submerged natural gas pipeline technology under the relatively shallow northern waters of the northwest passage, to carry high-pressure air through pneumatic pipelines installed on the seafloor below navigation channels. The pneumatic pipelines would include upward pointing exhaust-valves of a specific cross sectional profile to produce oblique shock waves that will propagate upward to the ice cover. Regularly scheduled bursts of highly compressed air at sequenced points along the pneumatic line would pass propagate upward through the water.

Piston engines that are prone to pinging produce internal shock waves that can shatter the top of the piston. Similar shock waves could weaken the surface ice along Artic navigation channels, allowing ships to sail more easily through weakened ice cover than through a solid and continuous ice cover. When future Arctic navigation seasons begin, some subterranean caverns could hold maximum pressure as high as 3000-psia (200-bar). The water pressure around the pipeline would measure around 250-psia (17.5-bar) and the pressure difference could allow expansion shock waves to propagate upward toward the ice cover.

Deep caverns located near ocean water may include water-displacement, air-over-water operation. A special oil compound may be used to separate the air and the seawater. Modern flex-head drilling technology could produce a water conduit between a body of water and a portion of cavern located some 4000-ft below maritime sea level where pressure may reach 1800-psia (124-bar). Such caverns would be emptied of water outside of the navigation season, using air pressure. They may store a season’s volume of compressed air that may help keep the shipping lanes navigable.

The energy sector may spearhead the development of navigable channels through the Arctic waters, with other sectors of the international commercial marine transport industry benefiting from such an initiative. Ships sailing between European ports and any of several Far-Eastern Asian ports could gain the option of sailing the shorter route via Northern Canadian and Northern Alaskan waters. Trans-Arctic ship navigation will result from the installation of proven and still evolving technologies may assure future passage through Arctic navigation channels. There would likely remain an ongoing future need for specialized marine transportation technology to assure passage to conventional ships.

To assure seasonal trans-Arctic navigation, there may be the option would be for nuclear powered icebreaker tugboats to pull ships through the Northwest Passage. The ships may be partially carried by specially reinforced semi-submersible vessels, specifically designed to withstand the mechanical stresses imposed by sailing through ice conditions. These carrier vessels may include additional icebreaking capability plus computer-controlled bow and stern thrusters to assure proper navigation.

Each carrier would receive electrical power from either the tugboat or from the ship being partially carried, while computers aboard the tugboat may direct icebreaking operations plus a measure of controlled navigation to the towed carrier. An icebreaker tugboat of over 100MW output may pull an oceanic train of such carriers, each sourcing power from the tugboat. While the premium energy source would be nuclear fuel sourced from the Canadian uranium industry, there may be the option to power the icebreaker tugboats with Canadian natural gas. During the winter months, northern wind energy and/or natural gas fueled gas turbine engines may drive air compressors that pump air into the underground storage chambers.

In a manner that is similar to how Panama oversees the Panama Canal and Egypt oversees the Suez Canal, the Governments of Canada and the United States may directly or indirectly oversee the operation of a navigable trans-Arctic Northwest Passage that operates seasonally. The ships would sail along the northern Alaskan coast and pass through the northern Canadian waterway in a similar way that ships pass through the Panamanian waterway, that is, pay a tariff for navigational assistance along part of the voyage between the Bering Strait and the Labrador Sea. There may be scope for private commercial interests to operate the northern trans-Arctic shipping channel.

Depending on tariff rates, the Northwest Passage may become a competitive alternative route between Western Europe and Eastern Asian ports during the short Northern summer months. The seasonal duration of operation may be similar to that of commercial maritime operations on the upper Great Lakes and on Hudson Bay. Trans-Arctic ships may access ports at Churchill, Manitoba on Hudson Bay and Moosonee, Ontario on James Bay. Both ports offer railway access to major centers across the mid-Western and northeastern USA, while it may also be possible to develop a barge canal between Lake Superior and James Bay.

There may be future opportunity for private commercial interests to develop and implement technology that may assure maritime passage between the Bering Sea and Labrador Sea. Those interests may develop a strategy that may assure the viable operation of a seasonal northwestern passage across the Alaskan and Canadian Arctic region.

Harry Valentine can be contact via email at 

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