Arctic Ocean Transits

A transit of the Arctic Ocean is the movement of a marine vessel across the Arctic waters between the Atlantic and Pacific sides. Nearly every transit navigates along either the Northeast Passage and Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage. However, the determination of which voyages are full or partial transits depends on the documenting authority.

Arctic shipping routes
  • A full transit is often defined as a voyage through the Arctic between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, entering one side and exiting the other ocean corridor. Some sources consider a voyage across a majority of the NWP to be a full transit.
  • A Partial Transit is one that traverses part way through one of the passages, normally returning to the originating corridor.
  • A Destination Transit originates or terminates in an Arctic port and voyaging to or from ports outside of the region.
  • Local Transits represent vessels that travel exclusively within the passage.

Northern Sea Route
Northern Sea Route (NSR) transits are controlled by the NSR Administration office in Moscow affecting traffic in the Russian EEZ between the Cape Dezhnev and the Kara Gate and Cape Zhelaniya (the strait between the Cape and Franz Josef Land). Information regarding the transits is available from the NSR Information Office, for the 2011 – 2015 seasons. NSR transits often originate or terminate within the Arctic region with locations outside instead of traversing the whole route. Many other NSR transits are local and represent vessels that travel exclusively within the NSR passage.

Northeast Passage
The Northeast Passage (NEP) connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on the Norway-Russia side of the Arctic. It includes the Barents Sea region and the NSR. Transit records of the NEP are compiled by the NSR Information Office.

Northwest Passage
Transits of the NWP have been recorded by different agencies and researchers with differing perspectives on full or partial designations. All such transits navigate through the Canadian Archipelagos. Full transits are documented by R.K. Headland of the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge in England as passing between the Bering Strait and the Atlantic Ocean approaches to the Archipelagos. Others, including Canada’s NORDREG, record voyages through the Archipelagos to the Beaufort Sea as a full transit, without needing to traverse the Bering Strait.

Arctic transit traffic

Transit Traffic
Traffic along the Northern Sea Route peeked in 2013, after the record low ice extent of 2012. Since then, NSR transits have dropped significantly, possibly due to lower fuel prices making traditional shipping routes less risky and more profitable. U.S. sanctions against Russia likely affected the decline as well.

Northwest Passage transits increased from 5 in 2005 to 15 in 2015 with the receding summer ice extents. Voyages along the NWP are predominately made in smaller vessels able to navigate in the shallow waters and tight passages. But increasingly, larger ice capable passenger ships have been making the journey.

For available transits data:

updated 13-Dec-2016