Busan, and Emerging Opportunities in the Arctic

by Captain David (Duke) Snider
Friday November 15, 2013

I just spent the last week in Busan, Korea, attending and presenting at the Busan International Port Conference.  Not typically a venue that one would think a seagoing ice navigator would be spinning yarns until you consider the thematic panel in which I was asked to participate. 

Busan is presently the 5th largest port in the world for container through put, moving 17 million TEU this year.  And this is for a good reason.  Not only does it have the advantage of a fortunate geographic position on major shipping routes, the management team, led by Busan Port Authority President LIM Ki-tack, is very open-minded and forward looking. 

Adding to their already busy North Port, BPA has opened the huge Busan New Port on the western side of the city, which includes a complete service port that will eventually see 45 mega berths, full service for bunkering and ship repair with a drydock and connection to local multi-modal nodes.  Several 13,000TEU ships were alongside while we were there and the port is also able to easily take alongside two of Maersk's super massive Triple E's. 

But BPA is not sitting on their laurels.  They are looking for new markets and new ways to provide service.  And that is were I come in.

Arctic shipping

Having seen the recent press declaring open Arctic shipping and pending highways across the top of the globe shortening Asia to Europe passages by thousands of miles, the BPA wanted to hear the real story.  To that end, a panel presentation and discussion session on "Emerging Opportunities in the Arctic" was a focal point of discussion on how Busan could take advantage of the sea-change expected in the coming decades. 

Our panel, chaired by Professor Ryoo Dong-Keun of the Korea Maritime University, was asked the simple question, "What opportunities are there in the Arctic today and in the future?"  All panelists agreed that the Arctic is not destined to become a highway across the top of the globe any time soon. 

Gunnar Sandar, Senior Advisor from the Norwegian Polar Institute, made it clear that sea ice will remain a challenge and impediment to regular and routine liner trade for decades to come.  Sandar pointed out it isn't simply a matter of shorter steaming miles than traditional routes, but many other complex factors must be taken into consideration.

I spoke as both Vice President of the Nautical Institute and as CEO and Principal Consultant of Martech Polar Consulting Ltd.  The Nautical Institute is concerned that mariners inexperienced and untrained for operations in ice-infested waters could be sent into these challenging regions.  As a seagoing Ice Navigator and consultant to operators hoping to take advantages of changes in the Arctic, I provided the mariner's sea surface view of the challenges to Arctic Shipping. 

Spectrum of Challenges

The spectrum of challenges is broad: the remote region, subject to ice cover for 8 to 9 months per year; the requirement for ice strengthening of vessels operating in the region even in the summer due constant threat of encountering ice; the lack of infrastructure; the sporadic communications; the additional cost for insurance; and the need for bridge teams with sufficient ice experience to safely navigate within the polar area.

Any operator planning to operate north of 60ºN must be prepared for unexpected delays due to ice and be able to fend for themselves as support beyond the few icebreakers that operate in the region is near to non-existent, or days and weeks away.

Mikhail Belkin of Rosatomflot indicated, regardless of the hype, that while traffic WITHIN the NSR has increased dramatically, the NSR statistics don't indicate a huge increase in through traffic.  Through traffic from one end to the other has seen a slow and steady rise from the 1999 low, but nothing that indicates a major shift of shipping.  

The NSR has recognized that many voyages are still "test" voyages or are for specific niche cargoes that can afford delays and deviations due to ice.  Before closing to commercial shipping for 2013 the NSR recorded 60 through passages with a total throughput tonnage was in the order of 1M tons, a fly speck compared to Panama Canal's 333M tons. 

The Port of Busan

So where does that leave a port like Busan? 

With the unlikely prospect of a highway across the pole any time soon, ports like Busan are not likely to become huge feeder ports between Europe and Asia

However, in the discussion that followed the presentations the two mariners, Belkin and I, agreed that Busan could very possibly place itself in the position of trans-shipment or staging area for destinational voyages into and exiting the polar region. 

Whether transiting completely through or carrying cargo into or out of either the Northern Sea Route or the Northwest Passage, ships voyaging into the Arctic must be bunkered and supplied at one end or other.  If a port is already on the major shipping lanes that will feed or accept exiting polar traffic, it should have an edge, as the Port of Busan may well do.