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Defrosting the Mysteries of the Arctic Circle

August 16 2017

The Arctic Circle isn’t a place that one would commonly think of as humming with human activity. Most of the time it is not, but as the North Pole warms and sea ice melts during the summer months, the region becomes a bustling metropolis of ship movement.

24 of Spire's 40 maritime tracking satellites are polar orbiting, providing our customers with 100% Arctic coverage, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year. This creates an unprecedented view into the quantity and behavior of vessels in the region. We decided to take a closer look at the over 34M positional ship messages we processed above 80 degrees latitude last month to see what we could find.

Our first curiosity was about how many total ships there were in the region. What surprised us most was not that there were over 3,000 active vessels at the beginning of the month but that the number ballooned to over 5,200 towards the end of the month. That is more than a 65% increase in the number of ships over just a few days. All this occurred in just a 14 million square kilometer area that is mostly covered in ice.

Clearly, if the number of ships operating in the area was increasing then the sea conditions must also be changing. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, at the beginning of July the ice extent was nearly 10 million square kilometers but by the end of the month had fallen to a little below 7 million square kilometers. Ice that once took up about 70% of the Arctic Circle now only covered about 50%. This decrease in sea ice must have made ship passage much easier and safer, thus increasing the number of vessels willing to enter the waters.
But where exactly are all these ships from? Unsurprisingly, Norway, Russia, and Iceland top the list for most number of ships in the Arctic during July but it’s interesting to see ships from the United States, the Marshall Islands, and Liberia maintain a healthy presence as well.

Now that we knew who was navigating the waters, we started to consider what exactly they are doing in the warmer waters. Fishing may be the obvious guess but the data also revealed US cargo ships making runs between Greenland and Canada, Liberian cruise ships weaving around Svalbard, and Russian oil tankers traversing through to the Bering Sea. Further north we see an even more eclectic group of adventurous seafarers like bulk carriers, tugboats, and even a National Geographic explorer all the way from Jamaica.

We have many more questions to ask and a lot more data to look at. This is just a glimpse of the information being collected 450 km above the surface of the Earth, downlinked by one of our twenty-four ground stations, and instantly made available to customers via API. Even relatively basic descriptive analysis like this can highlight the vibrant economic activity happening in previously mysterious places like the Arctic.

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The Spire Reference is a collection of miniature articles about topics mentioned throughout the Spire website. Each topic contains additional citations for further reading.