28 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Breaking the ice:
ISE to play key
role in shaping
Arctic’s future
Changing sea levels open northern shipping
lanes but create new logistical challenges
By Thomas C. Sharkey, Thomas Birkland,
Martha Grabowski, Marie Lowe and William (Al) Wallace
November 2019 | ISE Magazine 29
The impact of climate change on the Arctic is unde-
niable. Estimates show that “Arctic ice cover has lost
about two-thirds of its thickness, as averaged across
the Arctic at the end of the summer” over the past
60 years according to a NASA article by Carol Ras-
mussen. Models estimate that “the total volume of
ice in September, the lowest ice month, declined by 78 percent
between 1979 and 2012,” reported Chris Mooney in the Wash-
ington Post.
As of Aug. 15, 2019, current sea ice levels are tracking close to
those observed in 2012, which is the year with the smallest re-
corded sea ice levels on record, according to the National Snow
and Ice Data Center (nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews). These changes in
the Arctic marine environment bring about longer navigable
summer seasons and the potential for significant industrial and
maritime activities outside of the Arctic area (see Figure 1).
For example, in 2016 and 2017, the Crystal Serenity cruise
ship traveled through the Bering Strait and the Northwest Pas-
sage with nearly 1,500 passengers and crew on board. That
number represented about 33% of the population of the larg-
est community, Utqiagvik (formerly known as Barrow), where
the ship passed while off Alaskas coast. If the Crystal Seren-
ity were in distress and its passengers and crew needed to be
evacuated to shore, what would be the logistical challenges of
evacuating and supporting the passengers and crew onshore?
The remoteness of the Arctic would constrain any response
efforts; for example, Utqiagvik is more than 500 miles away
from Fairbanks and more than 700 miles from Anchorage, the
closest hub communities prepared to respond to a major event.
During the response to the grounding of the research ship
Akademic Ioffe in Arctic waters off the coast of Canada in Au-
gust 2018, it took 16 hours for its sister ship to arrive to pick up
passengers and crew and then another 15 hours before it arrived
in Kugaaruk, with a population of 933 (Ed Struzik, “In the
melting Arctic, a harrowing account from a stranded ship,Yale
Environment 360).
These challenges highlight what role industrial and systems
engineering can play in helping shape the future of the Arctic:
ISE methods can help optimize the logistics of a response effort
and help plan investments for such a response.
This is not the only challenge where ISE can play a role in
the future of the Arctic. With sea ice melting and the Arctic
experiencing longer navigable seasons, there is also a transfor-
mative potential to use the Northwest Passage, the route along
the northern shore of Canada and the United States, and the
Northern Sea Route, which runs along the northern shore of
Russia and Europe, for global shipping. These routes could re-
duce the number of travel days between Europe, Asia and the
For example, a ship sailing from South Korea to Germany
could potentially save more than 11 days by taking the North-
ern Sea Route as opposed to the route through the Suez Ca-
nal (William Booth and Amie Ferris-Rotman, “Russias Suez
Canal? Ships start plying a less-icy Arctic, thanks to climate
change,” Washington Post). However, the current viability of
this route is questionable due to its limited navigable season – at
best, July through October – Russias restrictions on through
traffic and challenges in accurately forecasting sea ice in the
area, which could signicantly impact when ships arrive at
The impact on global supply chains through the use of these
routes could be enormous and ISE methods can help to address
a long list of related questions, including:
How can we accurately forecast travel times through routes
where sea ice can disrupt travel?
How can we best chart the Arctic waters to improve situ-
ational awareness? As of 2016, only 1% of U.S. Arctic wa-
ters have been charted to modern standards (Hannah Hoag,
“NOAA is updating its Arctic charts to prevent a nautical
disaster,” Arctic Deeply).
How will and how should global supply chains adapt with a
significantly decreased maritime transit lead time?
What is the optimal balance between sending goods via the
traditional and more consistent routes versus the new and
riskier routes?
What are the impacts and risks of accidents on these routes?
For an initial simulation investigation in this area, see
Jean Freitas and Hiba Barouds report, “Impact of climate
change and infrastructure risk management on Arctic ship-
ping,” 12th International Conference on Structural Safety
& Reliability, Vienna, Austria, 2017.
Do the benefits of using these routes outweigh the poten-
tial costs and environmental impacts? For example, there
is a movement to ban the shipping of heavy fuel oil in the
Arctic’s economic impact,
by the numbers
8: Member states of the Arctic Council and Arctic Coast
Guard Forum, which includes the U.S., Canada, Denmark
(Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia and Sweden
1 million: Square miles of U.S. territorial waters and
exclusive economic zone in the Artic
10 million: Tons of goods, including gas, oil, grain and
coal, transported via the Northern Sea Route in 2017
90 billion: Barrels of undiscovered oil reserves in the
Arctic, including 30% of the world’s undiscovered natural
$1 trillion: Estimated value of rare minerals in the Arctic,
including zinc, nickel and lead
Source: U.S. Coast Guard Strategic Outlook
30 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Breaking the ice: ISE TO PLAY key role in shaping Arctic’s future
The opening Arctic lanes
This map illustrates the Northwest Passage (Greenland, Canada and the U.S.) and Northern Sea Routes (Europe and Asia), including Arctic
Sea harbors and the extent of sea ice. Source: Nordregio
November 2019 | ISE Magazine 31
Arctic (www.hfofreearctic.org).
Should the nations of the world consider barring the use
of these routes when both the origin and destination of
the routes are outside the Arctic and what would be the
impact of such a ban?
There is significant concern about the potential environ-
mental consequences of such maritime activities as well as
the potential impact from natural resource exploration of the
Arctic. First, the regions indigenous people rely on marine
mammals for their subsistence hunting and strongly oppose
any adverse developments on these resources.
Second, oil spill response and pollution in Arctic waters
may have different effects than in more temperate waters.
Dispersants used to degrade oil hydrocarbons are not as ef-
fective in lower temperature water (Robert M.W. Ferguson,
Evangelia Gontikaki, James A. Anderson and Ursula White,
The variable influence of dispersant on degradation of oil
hydrocarbons in subarctic deep-sea sediments at low tem-
peratures,Scientific Reports) and pollution released by ships,
such as black carbon, can accelerate sea ice melt.
Third, the remoteness of the region poses challenges to
the current infrastructure, such as emergency response capa-
bilities, which will likely not be able to keep up with future
demands. The resources needed to respond to a significant
environmental disaster, such as an oil spill, could happen
very far away from current response assets. In this area, ISEs
have already laid the foundation to shape the future of the
For example, work after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill
in Alaskas Prince William Sound, which is considered sub-
Arctic, addressed the role of effective management in crisis
prevention (John R. Harrald, Henry S. Marcus, William A.
Wallace “The Exxon Valdez: An assessment of crisis pre-
vention and management systems,Interfaces 1990). Further,
ISE methods, including simulation, data analysis and expert
judgement tools, have helped to guide investments to de-
crease oil spill risk in the Prince William Sound after the
Exxon Valdez disaster (Jason R.W. Merrick, J. Rene van
Dorp, Thomas Mazzuchi, John R. Harrald, John E. Spahn
and Martha Grabowski, “The Prince William Sound risk
assessment, Interfaces 2002).
As another example, operations research (OR) models
have been created to help plan infrastructure investments to
increase oil spill response capabilities in Arctic Alaska that
specically capture the novelty of response in remote regions
(Richard Garrett, Thomas C. Sharkey, Martha Grabowski
and William A. Wallace, “Dynamic resource allocation to
support oil spill response planning for energy exploration in
the Arctic,European Journal of Operational Research, 2017).
The three currently debated examples of potential future
economic activity in the Arctic – cruise ships, increased
Changes at the top of the world
Some key facts on the changing Arctic climate:
Arctic heats up: Earth’s average surface temperature has risen
1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees F) since the 1880s. The World
Meteorological Organization recorded June as the warmest ever
on record, breaking the previous record from 2016. The Arctic
has warmed more than twice as fast, and the past five years have
been its hottest on record. The summer of 2019 was especially
hot, with temperatures in North Siberia up to 8 degrees C above
normal, according to the Russian meteorological institute
Roshydromet, and 4 degrees warmer in the Laptev and East
Siberian seas. June 2019 saw the second smallest Arctic sea ice
extent for June in the 41-year record, behind the record low set in
June 2016, according to an analysis by the National Snow and Ice
Data Center.
Permafrost melt: Warmer summers have melted a greater
portion of the Arctic permafrost, a thick subsurface layer of soil
that remains frozen throughout the year in polar regions. As
it thaws, it releases from the ice carbon dioxide and methane
trapped for centuries from the remains of prehistoric plants and
animals, adding to carbon in the atmosphere. Scientists are
discovering Arctic landscapes where permafrost once thawed
only a few inches a year but now thaw up to 10 feet within days or
weeks. It has turned once-frozen regions in wetlands, releasing
up to 1,600 gigatons of carbon trapped in the ice.
More water, more warming: While snow and ice reflect
most incoming sunlight, open water absorbs more heat. As more
ice melts, more sunlight is absorbed by the water, increasing the
More shipping, more carbon: As Arctic shipping lanes
open due to ice melt, ships add to the carbon output in the
atmosphere. Icebreaking oil tankers able to operate year-round
are responsible for 33% of carbon output though they make up
only 6% of the region’s maritime traffic.
Sources: National Geographic September 2019: The Barents
32 ISE Magazine | www.iise.org/ISEmagazine
Breaking the ice: ISE TO PLAY key role in shaping Arctic’s future
commercial shipping and natural resource exploration – argu-
ably will be controlled by entities outside the region and a key
aspect of the future of the Arctic is that “outside” systems will
make their way into the Arctic. Infrastructure development to
support these maritime activities, such as increasing emergency
response capabilities, likely will occur near Arctic communities
that are predominantly indigenous. Subsistence hunting and
shing remain integral to the lives of the Arctic’s indigenous
people and increased commercial maritime activities could im-
pact traditional livelihoods.
Industrial and systems engineering can play a critical role in
ensuring these systems are responsibly integrated into the Arc-
tic and benefit the regions indigenous populations. It is the lead
engineering discipline that seeks to understand how humans
interact with systems and how systems affect humans and com-
munities. The interaction of the indigenous communities with
these “outside” systems is an important feature to capture in
analytical models as it will allow us to understand the true im-
pacts and consequences of the plans for these systems.
Although ISEs are uniquely capable to address this within
engineering, it will be necessary to partner with experts, both
academic and indigenous in disciplines such as the social sci-
ences, who can incorporate indigenous knowledge and percep-
tions of the potential impact of systems presently foreign to the
Arctic. Otherwise, ISE methods will be attempting to model
the interactions between the systems and indigenous people
with either incomplete or inaccurate information about how
these systems are viewed by indigenous people. These methods
can deal with inaccurate or probabilistic information in cer-
tain situations; however, a responsible approach to applying ISE
methods would be to engage with these experts rather than try
to tackle this problem on our own.
In addition to the need for emergency response infrastruc-
ture, the future of the Arctic will require new and improved
infrastructure systems in the region, including transportation,
power and telecommunications. The engineering requirements
to build these systems will need to be carefully studied by other
engineering disciplines but ISEs should play an important role
in capturing the true costs and benefits of these systems.
For example, improved telecommunications in the Arc-
tic could have important applications in telemedicine for the
citizens of the region. ISEs can help shape future healthcare
systems that can be built using these improved telecommuni-
cations capabilities. Furthermore, improvements in telecom-
munications could offer expanded educational opportunities,
another system in the region that ISEs can help shape.
Therefore, a high-level view – exactly what ISEs do – should
be undertaken in planning for new and improved infrastruc-
ture systems with an eye to understanding how these systems
can benefit Arctic communities.
Another example is to build road systems in remote com-
munities. This would significantly decrease the costs of con-
struction and capital improvement projects since using these
roads would alleviate the need to either ship by barge or fly in
material and equipment. Given the potential for development
in the Arctic, ISE methods can help calculate the break-even
point when it becomes more cost-effective to build road sys-
tems rather than barge resources into the area to develop the
outside systems. More importantly, these methods can factor in
the benefits that would be provided to the Arctic communities
through the construction of such road systems and thus cap-
ture the true impact of the investments, which includes both
decreasing construction costs and benefiting the communities.
As a final example, there are both energy and water security
concerns, especially as it pertains to outside activities impacting
Arctic communities. There are some communities where the
only reliable energy source is to barge in fuel during the sum-
mer and others where they need to begin filling their water
reservoir once the ice thaws in the spring in order to prepare
for the next winter.
In these cases, any unplanned demand, such as a mass rescue
bringing people into the community, would need to carefully
consider the impact on the long-term energy and water secu-
rity for the community. ISE methods can help determine the
level of investment into the security necessary for energy and
water demands to be met both within the community as well
These photos illustrate the sea ice changes seen near Utqiagvik, Alaska, within 12 hours. The photo at left was taken at 7:41 p.m.
June 16, 2019; the other at 8:37 a.m. the following day.
Photos by Thomas C. Sharkey
November 2019 | ISE Magazine 33
as outside the community.
In summary, ISEs can play an important role in helping
shape the future of the Arctic. They have the unique ability to
examine systems at a high level and understand the interactions
between humans and these systems. These capabilities will be
critical in understanding how different kinds of systems will be
integrated into the Arctic.
At the same time, our methods will only be valuable if we
have accounted for the true nature of the Arctic and its people.
We should partner with experts in the Arctic, both academic
and indigenous, to understand the region and its people so that
our methods are being applied responsibly to the true problems
that will shape the future of the Arctic.
Thomas C. Sharkey is an associate professor in the Department of
Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
in Troy, New York. He is an IISE member.
Thomas Birkland is a professor in the School of Public Administration
and International Affairs at North Carolina State University in Ra-
leigh, North Carolina.
Martha Grabowski is the McDevitt Distinguished Chair, Information
Systems Program, Lemoyne College and Research Scientist in the De-
partment of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer Poly-
technic Institute.
Marie Lowe is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropol-
ogy, Public Policy and ISER (Institute for Social and Economic Re-
search) at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
William (Al) Wallace is Yamada Corporation Professor in the Depart-
ment of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic
US Coast Guard urges boost in icebreaker investment
The opportunities and challenges of increased shipping options in the Arctic have the eight nations that touch the region
scrambling to stake their claims.
The United States Coast Guard, in a strategy assessment released April 22, urges the nation to invest more in ice-breaking
vessel capacity to keep up with the increasing presence of Russia and China on Arctic trade routes.
In its report, available at https://link.iise.org/uscg_arctic, the agency asserted that since its last Arctic assessment in 2013,
increased investments by and competition from Russia and China have coincided with decreasing amounts of permanent sea ice
and longer seasonal windows of open trade lanes.
“The interaction of these drivers has made the Arctic a strategically competitive space for the first time since the end of the Cold
War,” the report stated.
Cargo tonnage transported on the Northern Sea Route (NSR) since the Coast Guard’s last assessment has doubled due to
significant shipments of natural gas and oil products from Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal, using special “ice-
class” LNG tankers Russia built specifically for that operation.
Russia is also expanding its icebreaker fleet, which is already the world’s largest, the USCG reported, and now has 14 such
ships. Russia is also rebuilding or expanding other Arctic assets such as ports, air bases, commercial hubs, search and rescue
operations and weapons systems. It has built six military bases since 2003, the USCG reports.
Meanwhile, China has been increasingly active in the region since 2013 even though its borders don’t extend to the Arctic Ocean
as do those of the eight members of the Arctic Council – Russia, Canada, Iceland, Denmark (Greenland), Sweden, Norway, Finland
and the U.S. Early in 2018, it announced its “Polar Silk Road” initiative with a range of infrastructure activities to include ports,
undersea cables and airports.
But the agency warned that these expansion plans “could impede U.S. access and freedom of navigation in the Arctic as similar
attempts have been made to impede U.S. access to the South China Sea.”
To close the gap, the Coast Guard urges investment in vessels such as a Polar Security Cutter (PSC), which would be the first
U.S. heavy ice-breaker built in decades. PSCs, according to the Coast Guard, would not only help keep the U.S. ready defensively
in both the Arctic and Antarctic but would provide vessel escort services to help move freight and personnel. The agency plans to
award a detailed design and construction contract to build three PSCs, with $675 million in initial funding coming from the 2019
federal budget. The FY 2020 budget proposal released earlier this year includes a request of $35 million to keep the PSC program
The U.S. controls 1 million square miles of territorial waters and an Exclusive Economic Zone in the Arctic.
Source: freightwaves.com