From Dales Voe to Scapa Flow: Scotland, a Leading Marine Hub for the Arctic

By Peter Sherwin
Scapa Flow © Damien Entwistle/Flickr.

Peter Sherwin

On Monday, 23 September 2019, the Scottish Government launched Scotland’s first Arctic Policy Framework in Stromness, Orkney. You can read the policy document here. To mark the occasion, Polar Research and Policy Initiative (PRPI) will be publishing articles about Scotland’s Arctic expertise, interests and priorities every day for 14 days. Here is the tenth piece of our #ArcticScotland series.  

Take a look at the key points raised within Scotland’s recent Arctic Policy Framework, and you will see Scotland’s motivation to act in support of ‘transport decarbonisation, active travel and ultra-low emission vehicles’, along with ‘marine planning so as to promote the protection of species and habitats and the sustainable development of a burgeoning marine energy sector’.[1] This is a promising start, reflecting the outlook required to fulfil Scotland’s ‘Sustainable Economic Development’ action area and promote ‘Scotland’s credentials as a key near-Arctic marine transport and logistics partner, scoping opportunities to build a world-class hub’.[1]

Within Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework, there is the strong message that Scotland is taking the threat of climate change seriously and points to ‘Norway’s intention to make all domestic flights electric by 2040’ as a welcome example of decarbonised transport.[1] Decarbonisation also looks to be on the agenda for maritime activities, with Scotland’s support of the HySeasIII project looking to implement hydrogen power in passenger ferries.[1] Of course, hydrogen is only renewable as long as the energy used to produce it is renewable.

Although hydrogen-powered vessels are a fairly new phenomenon, given the technical difficulties and high energy demand associated with hydrogen production and storage,[2] they are on the rise. One such example is the planned world’s first hydrogen-powered cruise ship to be operated by Viking cruises.[3] Given the increased pressure on the shipping industry to reduce its carbon footprint[4] and the possibility to implement renewably generated hydrogen-powered vessels, along with Scotland’s commitment to the establishment of an ultra-deep water (UDW) port[1] in Dales Voe, Shetland Islands,[5] it would seem an optimal time to take a lead in defining the ports of the future suitable to capture Arctic marine traffic.

Scotland’s UDW Port Proposal and Arctic Shipping Trends

Although this commitment to an UDW port is sandwiched between a paragraph advocating Scotland’s ability to act as a ‘near-Arctic marine transport and logistics hub’[1], presumably in part to capture increasing trans-Arctic shipping, and a paragraph establishing the role of ports in trade-based economic development, it is unclear what Scotland’s intention is. The purpose appears to be, as written, to ‘accommodate the largest heavy lift vessels currently in operation in the North Sea.[1]

According to the Scottish Government’s 2018 ultra-deep water port feasibility study, the purpose of such an UDW port is to support the decommissioning sector through provision for ultra-heavy lift vessels aiding in deconstruction of Oil and Gas platforms in the UK Continental Shelf.[6] Within the feasibility study, these ultra-heavy lift vessels are assumed to require ‘24m of water depth at the quayside and 14m depth on approach’[6] for lifting and transiting respectively. The required -24m CD adjacent to the quay could be achieved through dredging below the existing -20m CD, whist water depths in excess of 30m further out into Dales Voe are more than ample for approach.

Although these depths are sufficient for the anticipated decommissioning traffic, in reality they would be restrictive to the very largest heavy lift vessels[6], and given the increase in size and frequency of vessels navigating through the Arctic, Dales Voe as a whole may prove too constrained to handle the quantity of other marine traffic.


Figure 1: Map of the Arctic region showing shipping routes Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route, and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry [7]

In 2016, the general cargo carrier Gretke Oldendorf of dead weight tonnage (DWT) of 81,400 tonnes, with a draft of 14.3m and loaded with coal, transited the NSR from Canada to Finland.[8] Other vessel types transiting the NSR in 2016 seen include Ice breakers, Tugs, Rescue, Passenger, Reefer and supply vessels. 2017 and 2018 saw both the range in type, capacity and size of vessels increase to include Heavy Lift, Tanker, Pallet, Deck cargo, Fishing and Container vessels.[8] Although the number of vessels transiting the NSR is still low (27 in 2019)[8], it is increasing, and it is clear that the range of industry utilising the NSR is diversifying, which provides an opportunity. Additionally, however, this increase in vessel frequency and diversity includes tankers and general cargo vessels of a size larger than could possibly be handled in quantity at Dales Voe.

An alternative, of course, could be Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, which is the world’s second largest natural harbour and Europe’s largest natural harbour, encompassing an area of around 125 square miles, holding 1 billion cubic metres of water, and with 15 anchorages where water depths can be exceed 30m.[9] Already established as an important maritime hub, not least for ‘ship-to-ship transfer operations’,[1] Scapa Flow has sufficient room to handle multiple vessels across its various existing ports. After Occidental Petroleum constructed an oil terminal on the island of Flotta in Scapa Flow between 1974 and 1977, the Flotta Oil Terminal emerged as the second largest major oil terminal serving the North Sea, surpassed only by Sullom Voe in Shetland. It now receives crude oil and LPG through a 210-km pipeline from the Flotta catchment area in the North Sea.[9] While Scapa Flow has conducted more than 420 ship-to-ship operations of crude oil cargo since 1980, it also played host to the world’s first commercial ship-to-ship transfer of LNG in 2007, and more than 22 million barrels of oil have been transferred via 160 ship-to-ship operations over the past decade.[9] Furthermore, in 2016, it completed its first ship-to-ship transfer of LPG.[9]

Additionally, there is great potential for the transition of these ports to become emission-free in operation, through use of locally-generated renewable energy for which Orkney has since become known. In recent years, Orkney has not only produced more electricity through renewable sources than it needs, but also has rapidly leaped to the fore of the marine energy technology revolution, thanks to institutions such as the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC).[10] The Orkney Renewable Energy Forum notes that, historically, Orkney was where the UK’s first grid-connected wind turbine was tested back in 1951, and was home to the world’s largest wind turbine from 1984 to 2000 and to the UK’s first Smart Grid from 2009.[10] Fast forward to the present day: Orkney now has more domestic turbines than any other county in the UK; more households generating their own electricity from renewable sources than anywhere else in the UK; and seen more grid-connected ocean energy devices tested than in any other site in the world.[10]

In 2011, in response to the need of marine renewables port infrastructure in Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands Council joined forces with the European Regional Development Fund to invest in a refurbished quay infrastructure and services in the formal naval base of Lyness, which lies to the southwest of Scapa Flow and ‘within harbour limits offers considerable opportunity on a 300,000 square metre brown field site for marine related industries’.[9] While Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands may be located further south than Dales Voe in the Shetland Islands, it can provide easier access to large domestic markets in the UK and the EU. Although Scapa Flow itself is of adequate depth (around 35m) to handle the largest vessels currently operating in the Arctic, and offers unrivalled ‘sheltered, swell and tidal free deep water anchorages’ in Northern Europe,[9] its ports may require investment in an upgrade so they are more fit for purpose when it comes to Arctic marine traffic – perhaps floating infrastructure could provide a solution. 

It should be noted that the number of vessels transiting the NSR cited earlier are those that fully transit the NSR, i.e. those vessels that enter at one end and leave at the other, passing the full distance along the Russian coastline. It does not account for vessels routinely traveling short part distances along the Russian coastline, or indeed anywhere else in the Arctic. In reality, as seen in Figure 2, the vast majority of marine traffic in the Arctic does not consist of large super tankers and heavy lift vessels but of smaller fishing, cargo, passenger and other vessels, with cruise traffic showing significant growth.[11] It must also be borne in mind that only those vessels that have an Automatic Identification System (AIS) are recorded in the below Figure 2, meaning all vessels above 300 tonnes, or those that have greater than 12 people.[11]


Figure 2: Map of the European Arctic region showing current vessel positions (25/09/2019) atop the 2017 density map of vessel movements [12] [13].  Orange = Fishing; Light blue = Tugs and Special craft; Dark blue = Passenger vessels; Green = General cargo; Red = Tanker; Pink = Pleasure craft.

The above Figure 2 not only shows the diversity in vessel types operating in and near the European Arctic, but also the distribution and intensity of marine traffic. High intensity is not only seen in the North Sea and around Scotland, but also along the Norwegian coast and around Iceland, making them serious competition in the capture of marine traffic. In fact, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Norway, ‘80% of shipping in the Arctic goes through Norwegian waters’.[14] Both Norway and Iceland are also considering the development of deep water ports to cater for NSR traffic in Kirkenes[15] and Finnafjord[16] respectively. Although both locations appear feasible to capture traffic from the NSR, neither location sees both north-south traffic between Europe and the Arctic and east-west traffic between Europe and North America to the extent that Scotland does. Scotland could, therefore, if willing to expand its offering, be ideally placed to act as a sustainable hub for Arctic marine traffic. This opportunity has been recognised in Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework.

In considering the scope for an expanded offering of the currently proposed UDW port, the 2018 feasibility study largely comes up blank. Considered alternative uses for a UDW port post or during its facilitation of decommissioning work include future generation oil and gas infrastructure along with the renewable energy sector. Unfortunately, it is concluded that the renewable energy sector does not require the services of a UDW port, with other existing ports being sufficient. Currently, therefore, the commitment to an UDW port in relation to the Arctic seems to extend either to a prospective international decommissioning business for oil and gas exploiting Arctic states, or to providing for the few medium-sized vessels that transit the NSR.

Scottish Creation of Value for the Maritime Arctic

In the general sense, it seems strange for Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework to refer to the development of an UDW port in Dales Voe, given that the feasibility study for the ports development was restrictive in the markets considered for its viability, and the necessity for an UDW port to cater to the needs of the Arctic is limited. The feasibility assessment did not, for example, consider activities such as subsea mining and carbon capture and storage (CCS), both of which are becoming of increasing interest and could benefit from Scotland’s marine engineering and innovation abilities. It is, of course, not surprising that Arctic-specific markets were not considered in the feasibility assessment. Any new deep-water port that wishes to cater to the needs of the Arctic and to compete with Norway and Iceland must not only cater for short-to-medium term operations, such as decommissioning, but also the long term, an example being Arctic mineral extraction.

Given Scotland’s support of efforts to ensure ‘Arctic shipping traffic grows in the full respect of the principles of safety and sustainability’,[1] it is a shame to see no direct mention or commitment to the development of truly sustainable infrastructure in relation to the development of a new UDW port, rather the wish to accommodate current vessels. Global shipping in its current form is known to contribute a significant percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions,[4] contributing to global warming. With shipping estimated to grow between 50% and 250% by 2050,[17] there is an obvious need to consider what the development of sustainable shipping, specifically in the Arctic, looks like and how Scotland can support its development; should the Arctic, for example, demand tougher restrictions on emissions, or indeed the quantity of shipping itself? These questions are particularly poignant in the Arctic, where there is a positive lack of established reliance on international goods and produce in not only avoiding the imposition of a consumerist market but also in maintaining cultural identity.[16] It is indeed this very point that is discussed in PRPI’s recent article ‘The Trillion-Dollar Reason for an Arctic Infrastructure Standard’[4] as a factor for sustainable Arctic development.

What then can Scotland offer to the Arctic in relation to improving maritime activities? Largely, Scotland can offer innovation. Backed by strong academic institutions and industry, leading technical marine expertise, such as those gained through the Orkney Islands-based European Marine Energy Centre, Scotland is recognised as being one of the top innovative nations within Europe.[1] Through partnership with Arctic nations, such as through the University of the Arctic (UArctic) network, of which Scotland is a member, Scotland can position itself as a leader in sustainable ports and shipping. Innovation is already underway within Scottish marine passenger transport in the development of the world’s first hydrogen powered sea-going passenger ferry.[1] The route on which the ferry will operate is in the Orkney Islands[17] where the excess renewably generated power (through wind wave and tidal stream)[20] is at times so significant that it can’t all be exported,[1] resulting in hydrogen production of a quantity that outstrips demand.[17]


Figure 3: Shapinsay ferry at Kirkwall Harbour. cc-by-sa/2.0– © Oliver,[21].

Through the HySeasIII project facilitating the hydrogen-powered ferry, Scotland is not just leading the way in the development of a local and operating zero emission transport system, but is also gaining valuable knowledge and technical ability perfectly suited for export to a developing Arctic. Seeing Scotland’s local approach, as per its Regional Marine Plans, is encouraging as it provides an applied backdrop to the export of Scotland’s marine spacial planning expertise.[1]

In Scotland’s Arctic Policy Framework, Scotland pays tribute to the lessons that can be learnt from Arctic partners regarding climate change and necessary adaptation and inclusion within marine spacial planning. Partnerships around the various aspects of climate change mitigation and adaptation will be key if Scotland is to successfully implement the challenging targets set within their 2015 National Marine Plan. One such target is the use of ‘renewable sources to generate the equivalent of 100% of Scotland’s gross annual electricity consumption by 2020’.[22]

Given the propensity of vessel operators to maintain use of a port once they start, then in relation to the development of a new port, if Scotland is able to provide a unique maritime offering at an early stage, then there is scope to capture and capitalise upon not only commercial shipping between Europe, the Arctic and North America along with trans-Arctic shipping and local decommissioning, but also the smaller and higher proportion marine traffic, such as cruise tourism, fishing and technical services. If Scotland wants to lead the future within the maritime sphere and improve the viability and sustainability of Arctic development, then it needs to offer something new!

Not only are hydrogen-powered vessels now becoming a reality, there is also an increased demand for shore-to-ship power to keep vessels operational whilst berthed in port. Providing both liquid hydrogen directly to accepting vessels and use of stored hydrogen as an alternative form of battery for power generation within a port is technically feasible and largely emission-free if the hydrogen is produced using renewable energy generation. Although this could be implemented in ports across Scotland, given the Shetland Islands is likely the ideal location for renewable energy generation, such a solution would appear ideal for what could be the North Atlantic and near Arctic logistics super hub.


Figure 4: Oil rig being dismantled at Dales Voe, Lerwick. cc-by-sa/2.0– © Mike,[21].

The creation of a zero emission operating port catering to a range of vessels would both prepare Scotland for the changing face of marine traffic, increase Scotland’s viability to capture trans-Arctic shipping and place Scotland at the forefront of global maritime activities, setting the trend for what is possible within the developing Arctic. Working in partnership, Scotland could provide the first in a network of hydrogen-supplying operationally renewable ports between Scotland and the Arctic to facilitate the growing cruise tourism market. A network could include countries such as Iceland, Faroe Islands, Norway, Svalbard and Greenland, countries which already collaborate through the established High North Atlantic Business Alliance (HiNABA) network.

The Challenges and Competition to Establishment of a Sustainable Hub for Arctic Marine Traffic

As mentioned, both Norway and Iceland are considering the establishment of a dedicated port to capture the increasing traffic traversing the NSR, and both have scope. Norway’s offering, however, forms only part of a much larger and more complex goods transport corridor between Finland and Asia.[15] A new port, located at Kirkenes in northern Norway, is being proposed as the termination point, on the edge of the Barents sea, of an envisaged railway line stretching down to Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland, increasing the ability to export European goods to Asia along the NSR. The continued optimism for the project by local port developers along with China is in opposition to the negative Norwegian and Finnish governmental outlook,[15] with the conclusion that the volume of cargo is insufficient to be commercially viable.[23] Additionally, given the huge opposition from the indigenous Sámi people,[24] any railway appears unlikely to be built any time soon, with similar implications for the port project in Kirkenes. It does not appear that there is any intention to develop a port in Kirkenes for any reason other than the transfer of goods.

Iceland’s offering has made further progress than Norway’s, with a fundamental agreement between interested parties to construct the Finnafjord port signed in 2016.[25] The purpose of the port appears to be making use of Iceland’s cheap electricity to service oil and gas exploration, production and storage, along with processing of minerals,[25] originating within the Arctic.[16] This largely carbon-based business is in contrast to the picture presented by bremenports that emphasises that the port shall become a ‘truly “green” port’,[16] utilising Iceland’s renewable energy and by producing ‘hydrogen or other emission-free future fuels’.[14] However, this Arctic paradox is also a challenge faced by Scottish ports, such as those at Dales Voe or Scapa Flow. In this respect, the Finnafjord Port Project is both catering for current and future demand, in much the same way as a Scottish facility would do.

That being said, a stronger focus on the future of marine transport and the capacity to cater to the increasing vessel diversity being experienced in the Arctic, combined with easier access to large domestic markets in the UK and the EU, would set Scotland apart. Facilitating a current decommissioning requirement within the oil and gas industry that moves away from industry expansion would ensure Scotland’s sustainable integrity remains intact whilst transitioning to a truly sustainable port in operation and facilitation. Other than the services it could provide, Scotland is also likely better positioned geographically than either Kirkenes or Finnafjord to provide for both North-South and East-West shipping and North Sea marine activities. All in all, if Scotland can provide the next generation of sustainable port(s), then it is well positioned not only to provide business for Scotland but also to contribute positively to the development of the Arctic.


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On Monday, 23 September 2019, the Scottish Government launched Scotland’s first Arctic Policy Framework in Stromness, Orkney. You can read the policy document here. To mark the occasion, Polar Research and Policy Initiative (PRPI) will be publishing articles about Scotland’s Arctic expertise, interests and priorities every day for 14 days. Here is the tenth piece of our #ArcticScotland series.  

Peter Sherwin is a Fellow in the Built Environment Unit at Polar Research and Policy Initiative. By background, he is a Civil Engineer and has worked for Ramboll UK, primarily on coastal and built environment infrastructure, the marine environment and specialisation in cold climate engineering. He was also involved in the upgrade of British Antarctic Survey assets to facilitate the UK’s polar research vessel, the RRS Sir David Attenborough. Peter is currently pursuing a further double Nordic Master’s in Cold Climate Engineering, living in the Arctic for the next year. For further information, please visit his profile here
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