Article / 06.05.2024

A fast digital connection across the Arctic

The Polar Connect initiative envisions a new digital route between Europe and East Asia to ensure fast and secure connectivity in the future. The goal is to lay a fibre-optic cable, equipped with smart sensors, on the seabed across the Arctic Ocean.
Source: NORDUnet.

The consortium leading the project consists of NORDUnet, the Swedish Research Council, and the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat. Together they recognise both the urgency for a safe connection and the possibilities for climate research.

“The project combines commercial interests with scientific research in the best way,” says Katarina Gårdfeldt, Director-General at the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat.


The Arctic route improves safety

The fibre-optic cable (the green line in the illustration above) will utilise the shortest sea route from Europe to Asia, passing through international waters, in contrast to current connections that traverse southern continents and possible conflict areas. The cable will additionally be equipped with smart sensors to ensure its protection, as approaching vessels can be detected from underwater noise.

“Furthermore, the sensors can gather critical environmental data from the Arctic Ocean,” Gårdfeldt explains. “These data are essential for climate, seismologic, oceanographic, and biological research. It is extremely valuable information when we investigate how the polar areas are reacting to climate change and it helps us to predict the global effects. This is crucial in the planning of our future cities, for example.”


Unknown areas provide challenges

Laying a cable across the uncharted areas in the Arctic Ocean comes with certain challenges. Therefore, the seabed must be mapped first. Depths vary from shallow waters down to 4600 metres containing slopes and valleys, similar to land areas.

“Naturally, the ice situation is also critical. While we plan to lay the cable around the month of August when ice areas are at their minimum, we are still talking about 2.5 metres of thick multi-year ice and icebergs,” Gårdfeldt emphasises.

A third challenge is geostrategic. The Arctic has various zones: economic zones, extended economic zones, and international waters. All of these have special concerns, rules, and regulations.

While the plan is to lay the cable around the month of August, when ice areas are at their minimum, the ice in the Arctic is still several metres thick multi-year ice with icebergs. Jukka-Pekka Sallinen from Aker Arctic measuring ice thickness in the Arctic during an expedition in 2021.

Two existing icebreakers and one new

The Swedish Polar Research Secretariat has established that at least three icebreakers are needed for the project: the Swedish icebreaker Oden, another icebreaker — such as the Finnish Fennica or Nordica — refitted as a cable laying vessel, and a heavy polar class icebreaker to tackle the Arctic ice. As such vessels are not available in the market, one would have to be built.

The new heavy polar research icebreaker, with a Polar Class (PC) 1 or PC 2+ ice class, should ideally be twice as strong as Oden to manage in the Arctic. Such a vessel would be about 150 metres in length, have a propulsion power of at least 40 MW, and be powered by methanol or biodiesel to reduce the environmental impact.

Other important features are Dynamic Positioning (DP) Class 2, a moonpool, and an open aft working deck with lifting equipment. This ensures suitability for both modular container laboratories as well as transportation of cargo containers, considering the future tasks of the vessel.


Logistics to polar regions

After the cable is successfully in place, the polar icebreaker can be used for research and logistic tasks to both polar regions. Finland and Sweden are neighbours also in Antarctica, with ample cooperation. Transportation of goods to the Antarctic stations is a yearly necessity and the vessel could take as much as one hundred twenty-feet containers on-board.

According to Gårdfeldt, the best gift to researchers is a clean vessel not emitting soot or particles into the air, allowing reliable air pollution measurements. Methanol as fuel and a battery solution for switching off the engines during research are the best answers to this.


Cable laying in forty to sixty days

The seabed mapping is estimated to take about three seasons utilising the icebreaker Oden. In the meantime, the heavy icebreaker can be constructed. Once it is commissioned, the plan is to advance to the Arctic with three icebreakers to lay the cable.

“Our vision is that the polar icebreaker proceeds first, breaking up the extremely heavy, untouched ice,” outlines Gårdfeldt. “After follows Oden, chewing the ice into smaller pieces. Lastly, the cable-laying vessel, such as Fennica or Nordica, lowers the fibre-optic cable in place. This will take an estimate of forty to sixty days depending on the ice situation and speed.”


Private investors needed

Gårdfeldt’s wish is to begin construction of the polar icebreaker in 2025 to be able to complete the project in 2030.

“We have thoroughly researched plans how to achieve our goal. Now we need a political decision and the financial support,” she highlights. “Sweden could take the lead in this and collaborate with other countries. Apart from EU-financing, we are hoping to attract private investors keen in the fibre-optic data connection.”


Nordic countries have Arctic know-how

The close Nordic cooperation in this project is one of the highlights according to Gårdfeldt. The consortium’s plan is that Finland provides a vessel refitted for the cable-laying, Sweden provides the icebreaker Oden for ice management, Denmark participates through NORDUnet, and the EU finances part of the project.

“Now that the technical outline is in place, we need a commercial partner seeing the benefits of this project. As Arctic countries, we have the know-how of successfully completing technically demanding projects in the Arctic,” she says.

Aker Arctic Technology has helped the Swedish Polar Research Secretariat with ice management plans for the mapping of the seabed and pre-feasibility studies on the heavy polar research icebreaker.
Aker Arctic experts have researched the Arctic ice during 57 ice expeditions over 60 years.

Text: Catarina Stewen

Do you want to get fresh Arctic Passion News to your e-mail?

Do you want to order paper version of our magazine Arctic Passion News?

Contact us at