The North Sea is an important front for commercial shipping worldwide; being the most used shipping lane and front for commercial fishing and tourism; along with a more recent discovery of energy generation via fossil fuels, wind and wave power. The North Sea is considered to have the busiest ports in the world and Rotterdam being the busiest port in Europe and 4th in the world by tonnage since 2013. The vessels common in the North Sea range from cargo and merchant ships and fishing boats to sport and pleasure craft which move to and from North Sea and Baltic ports.
The North Sea, as the title suggest presents many challenges to seafarers and marine operators for a variety of reasons; traffic being the first problem with the Dover strait alone seeing 400+ commercial vessels per day. Traffic is generated due to globalisation, population growth which increases demands of imports+exports; warranting more vessels and thus more emissions which itself creates another challenge in the form of emission regulations.
Traffic and emissions in the North Sea are 2x challenges which are connected and possibly fixable with a single solution. Traffic-control schemes do exist in the North Sea, specifically the Dover Strait where collisions were the main inspiration. Inshore traffic zones, the first step in the scheme is the extensions of traffic zones including English and French zones. Collisions also requires passage planning/crossing traffic lanes where vessels are observed while changing course; with the most collision-prone zone is leaving Dover or Calais approach channels.
Vessel traffic warrants situational awareness as ships come in all categories and purposes therefore, reporting and monitoring would be among the most important solution. Efficient reporting, like most maritime situations is an important solution due to the fact that reportage of situations, movements and casualties creates and raises more awareness across the port authorities in order to take appropriate measures relating to the casualties.
Vessel emissions, another challenge which also connects to traffic is another issue that arises for marine operators. Emissions, while not as damaging to vessels and operators directly but regardless, concerning the ecological aspect and legal regulations. Solutions to this involve the usage of LNG fuel and converting a vessel to produce less emissions. The IMO imposed laws on this area to control Sulphur/SOx emissions; applying to fuel oil usage and creating “Sulphur-free” zones and regulations to enforce the laws by 2020. These zones, known as Emission Control Zones/ECAs cover Baltic and North seas; the busier areas which see more vessel traffic and therefore leading to believe that marine operators should either invest in mass vessel conversions or cancel/reschedule their voyages. According to latest MARPOL amendments the Sulphur fuel cap will drop to 5,000 ppm in 2020; warranting compliance from ships to meet Nitrogen/NOx and Sulphur/SOx emission control requirements in said areas.
Another environmental challenge which concerns the North Sea but also concerning ships directly are the ice shafts present. Sea ice and water depths concern vessels directly as ships physically contact and can be affected by this somewhat unpredictable climate factor; both challenge navigation. Dates of breaking ice shafts varies due to local wind influences where sustained northerly wind brings heavy ice from polar packs off Siberia; mix of fast first-year shore and denser multi-year ice. June-Mid November are months which are partially ice-free and improving by September.
Ice is a significant challenge which warrants a brief look on its lifecycle. Regional clusters or massifs occur off coasts every summer thus influencing traffic. Continental shelfs off Russian Arctic coasts are shallow where minimum depth in most straits exceed 20M; 2x parallel straits between Laptev and East Siberian Seas are shallow and thus exclude passage of ships with conventional hulls larger than 20,000 deadweight tons.
At the Eastern end, the ice conditions are more restrictive all year round where the East Siberian sea is shallow and continental shelf and weak ocean currents favour formation of fast-ice expanses up to 250-500KM off the coast; experiences least summer melt. Further East, Chukchi sea currents and prevailing winds where compact drift ice against the coast in winter; creating extensive pressure bridges.
Ice was a persistent feature of the North Sea forever with previous vessel movement being accompanied by icebreakers. Icebreakers are a logical solution but not without their issues. The cost of building a new polar class icebreaker is $1 billion; making this solution less accessible which leads to another solution of shifting focus to navigation and more emphasis on planning the route to avoid ice altogether.
So far, the main challenges which are presented by the North Sea involve climate and vessel traffic where shipping routes are growing busier and busier due to the influx of globalisation and demands for transportation of goods and commodities Climate also is an obstacle as the North Sea’s ice presence challenges navigation and sailing; where solutions to this are also relatively expensive with 1$ billion to build an icebreaker. Emissions from ships are also an issue which is concerning maritime organisations which warrant vessel conversions and changes to operating environments to cater to the new laws regarding this issue.