Future Arctic Navigation and Northwestern Atlantic Ports

file photo
file photo

Published Oct 13, 2019 6:21 PM by Harry Valentine

The looming prospect of trans-Arctic ship navigation has prompted China’s ship industry to develop container ships capable of seasonally sailing through the Russian side of the Arctic, ferrying containers between Eastern Chinese ports and Western European ports. Due to comparatively shallow draft, Chinese trans-Arctic ships are being built to small size and intended to carry medium priority container traffic between China and Western Europe, with railways carrying high priority containers. The increased sailing draft through the Canadian side of the Arctic invites operation of new generation Panamax size of container ships capable of carrying up to 14,000 TEU.

Perhaps in anticipation of future seasonal trans-Canadian-Arctic ship navigation, authorities at Quebec City have initiated plans to develop a container port intended to berth container ships that carry in excess of 8,000 TEU and transfer containers to/from railways and trucks. To the southeast of Quebec City at Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, plans are underway to develop two container transshipment ports that would also gain a competitive edge courtesy of future trans-Arctic shipping. Compared to sailing via the Panama Canal, future seasonal trans-Arctic shipping could extend a competitive advantage to the Port of Newark.

Suez Canal Competition

Mindful of future competition, officials at the Suez Canal Authority have developed plans to operation twin parallel navigation channels capable of providing passage to ships built to 20 meter depth by 65 meter beam, between the Gulf of Suez and the Mediterranean. The development could in the future, transit container ships of up to 35,000 TEU sailing to western Mediterranean transshipment ports at Algeciras in Spain and Tangier in Morocco. Ships of such capacity would simultaneously serve the East Asia – Western Europe container market along with transshipment destined for Eastern Canadian and Northeastern American ports.

During future northern winter months, future mega-ships sailing via the Suez Canal twin channels would compete with the Panama Canal, with new-Panamax size of container ships sailing North Atlantic transshipment service when trans-Arctic sailing closes for the winter. The nature of future trade relations between China and the U.S. would determine as to whether during winter, future mega-size container ships will sail across the North Atlantic to a Cape Breton port or sail only as far as a Western Mediterranean port. Future trade relations will determine as to whether such ships will sail via the Arctic.

Seasonal Hudson Bay Port

A pair of railway lines extends north toward Hudson Bay at the Port of Churchill and to the south at James Bay, to the town of Moosonee on the Moose River that could realize economic benefit from trans-Arctic container shipping. The railway line at Moosonee connects south into Canada’s biggest market for international container trade as well as to major American Great lakes cities such as Detroit and Chicago. If a future Canadian trans-Arctic navigation would last for six months from early in May to late in October, there may be merit in developing a container port near Moosonee.

The railway distance from Moosonee to Chicago and Toronto is much shorter than the railway distance from Pacific Coast container ports to these cities, with the prospect of lower per container transportation costs from East Asian ports. During a future Canadian trans-Arctic navigation season, a container port on James Bay near Moosonee would compete with other Eastern Canadian container ports located along the Lower Saint Lawrence River and at Cape Breton. That shipping season would coincide with the peak movement of containers carrying international trade between East Asia and North American warehouses.

Saint Lawrence Seaway

Warmer future winters would likely extended the Seaway shipping season by a few weeks into Lake Ontario and possibly Lake Erie. Future mega-size container ships of 35,000 TEU sailing via Suez Canal twin channels from Asia to Western Mediterranean transshipment ports would interline with smaller vessels sailing the North Atlantic to East Coast and inland waterway ports. The precedent of the small container ship of 1,000 TEU sailing feasibly between Ports of Antwerp and Cleveland (on Lake Erie) could be repeated between Western Mediterranean ports and Seaway ports located upstream of both Montreal and Quebec City.

The comparatively higher per container cost of railway transportation between Port of Newark and Cleveland offsets savings realized aboard larger ships sailing across the North Atlantic between Rotterdam and Newark. By comparison, the Newark – Cleveland railway distance is comparable to to the Quebec City – Toronto railway distance. The Antwerp – Cleveland precedent enhances the attractiveness of bypassing Ports of Montreal and Quebec City by sailing Seaway-max size container ships directly between Algeciras/Tangier and Toronto/Hamilton. Future developments in international trade would determine as to whether future mega-size container ships would sail via the Suez Canal to Cape Breton ports.

Competing Time Frame

Completion of deeper twin navigation channels at the Suez Canal along with the development of container ships of 28,000 to 35,000 TEU would likely precede the opening of an extended Canadian side trans-Arctic six-month long shipping season for new generation Panamax ships by five to 10 years. The competing time frame would allow for development of seasonal trans-Atlantic container interlining between Western Mediterranean transshipment ports and Eastern North American ports, including Seaway ports. Port of Quebec City could explore the merit of ship-to-ship container transfer to connect with American Seaway ports and if “cabotage” regulations are revised, to Canadian Seaway ports.

Tug Barges at Quebec

Canadian “cabotage” regulations yield zero cost benefit transporting containers aboard Seaway-max ship between Quebec City and Toronto/Hamilton, compared to railway transportation. There cost advantage would occur if the ship were to sail to an American port such as Ogdensburg NY or Cleveland OH. The location of Quebec City allows tug barges to move containers upstream to smaller Canadian ports, at competitive transportation cost per container. A tug’s ability to tow a ship by coupling to the bow allows for a Seaway – max ship converted to a towed non-powered barge to carry up to 1,500 TEU’s to Toronto/Hamilton, at competitive cost.

The combination of a bow coupled tug along with the absence of engines, fuel tanks and crew accommodation aboard the barge would allow for higher stacking of containers above the deck, with additional space for containers inside the barge. A navigation lock style of quayside for large container ships at Quebec City would allow for simultaneous container transfer to railways/trucks on one side with ship-to-ship transfer occurring on the other side. While railways could carry steady container loads from Quebec City throughout the year, maritime could carry the annual peak season overload of containers to Toronto/Hamilton.

Nova Scotia Ports

Eastern Canada’s Port of Halifax has long served as a container port and stands to gain additional seasonal transshipment business courtesy of trans-Arctic container ship navigation. There is zero increase in sailing distance for large container ships sailing to Port of Newark via the Arctic or via the Mediterranean Sea, to briefly stop at Halifax to partially offload or partially exchange containers. 

Smaller interlining ships would carry containers from Halifax to ports of Boston, Portland and possibly New Haven. Ships that sail via the Panama Canal to Port of Newark totally bypass Halifax altogether. While Halifax may be restricted to partial offloading of containers due to limited terminal area, the competing ports currently being developed in Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton region have many times terminal area to allow for total offloading of new generation large container ships. These ports will directly compete with Halifax and especially if future trade increases to warrant sailing vessels of 28,000 to 35,000 TEU to an east coast North American transshipment terminal, to transfer containers to smaller ships sailing to multiple American ports. Several American ports are being upgraded to berth and service container ships of up to 18,000 TEUs. 

European Arctic Transshipment

While the shallow draft along Russian side of the Arctic restricts the size of container ship, the more generous draft along the Canadian channels is able to transit container ships of many times the size. While the Canadian Northwest Passage includes sailing across Queen Maud Gulf and Victoria Strait, the northern route connects between the Beaufort Sea and Baffin Bay via Viscount Melville Sound, Barrow Strait and Lancaster Sound. Trans-Arctic navigation through the Northwest Passage could divert ships though Hudson Strait and the future possibility of a seasonal Northern Canadian ship-to-ship container transshipment terminal.

If the Northern Canadian trans-Arctic passage becomes available for seasonal ship navigation involving super mega-size container ships of 35,000 TEU, a seasonal European container transshipment terminal would likely become possible at Greenland’s capital of Nuuk, where the calm water of the sheltered bay would offer safe refuge for smaller interlining vessels laying over. While some of these vessels would carry containers to Western European ports, other vessels would carry containers to destinations in northeastern North American. By mid-21st century courtesy of seasonal trans-Arctic navigation, the volume of container transshipment at Nuuk could warrant ships of 50,000 TEU sailing to/from East Asia. 


Part of the warm Gulf Stream Ocean Current flows into Russia’s Arctic coastal region that together with changing climate has opened a seasonal Russian Arctic navigation passage for small container ships. Long-term warmer weather across the Canadian Arctic could open a seasonal navigation passage for much larger container ships, with potential to influence the international movement of containers. A trans-Arctic navigation season via a southern passage, lasting for six-months could encourage development of a container port in the southern region of James Bay with potential for future transshipment terminals in the region of Hudson Strait.

The opening of a Canadian northern trans-Arctic navigation passage would offer potential to transit super-mega-size container ships, with further potential to develop a transshipment terminal at Nuuk, Greenland with links to European ports, northeastern American ports and Seaway/Great Lakes ports. Future seasonal trans-Arctic container ship navigation via a southern passage has the potential to intensify competition amongst eastern Canadian container ports at Quebec City, Halifax and Cape Breton region.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.