The sea ice in Greenlandic waters is on retreat. Rising temperatures as a result of global climate change is resulting in longer ice-free periods in the summer releasing water, which before was permanently covered by ice. The retreating ice has been subject to great attention internationally and is already now leading to a marked increase in the level of shipping compared with just a few years earlier. In addition to the augmented number of cruise ships passing through, the growing interest for oil and mineral extraction in the region is expected to further increase shipping in Greenlandic waters.
The retreat of ice does not only bring good news for shipping in the Arctic. While the media brings stories of improved accessibility, new shipping routes and an augmented level of trade and transportation, ships sailing in the area report about an increased formation of drift ice as a consequence of the warmer climate. This amplifies the risks associated with shipping in the region and has the potential of making some areas less accessible, which puts demands on maritime safety in the waters around Greenland.
There are ongoing discussions as to whether the opening of the Northeast and the Northwest Passage will increase maritime activity along the Greenlandic coastline. While it is true that ships sail past Greenland, they do so at a great distance from the coast and it is hence considered of limited significance to Greenlandic authorities. Ships that are going through the Northeast Passage will sail east of Iceland and the – so far few – ships that wish to pass through the Northwest Passage are expected to sail with approximately equal distance to Greenland and Canada – hence in both cases relatively far from the Greenlandic mainland.
The Danish Maritime Authority, supported by the Greenlandic Government, handles regulatory functions in the maritime area in Greenland. In cooperation with the Arctic Council, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and maritime authorities of other arctic countries, the Danish Maritime Authority takes part in work to develop new guidelines and jurisdiction for shipping in the region. Efforts are also being made to develop a Polar Code, which will set international, mandatory safety rules for maritime transport in the Arctic and put new demands on the ships that move in arctic waters without the required equipment or necessary experience.