Finland: All-year-round open ports due to efficient ice-breaking services

The User

Managing a €1.7 billion budget and employing over 600 experts, the Finnish Transport Agency (FTA) is responsible for keeping Finns on the move all-year round.

The FTA head office is located in Helsinki. It operates under the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications and serves civilian, trade and industry needs. The FTA develops and maintains the country’s roads, railways and waterways while coordinating traffic routes to and from Finland’s 45 ports. During harsh winter months its fleet of eight icebreakers clears “fairways” into the ports, while also guiding merchant ships safely trough Finland’s continental waters.

The Challenge

Finland is the only country in the world where all ports freeze in winter. In 2014, 77.5% of Finnish imports and 89.6% of exports passed by sea. Keeping ports open and navigation fluid during winter months is therefore vital for the country’s highly industrialised economy. In the absence of wind, once opened, ice lanes can stay open for days. However, in stormy conditions, ice blown into ridges can trap and severely damage ships, hinder shipping routes and disrupt the supply value chains.

The need to monitor ice conditions was tackled as early as 1889, when Finland’s first ice-breaker entered into service. The early ice charts which initially monitored ice conditions had limited results because ice moves with the wind. Later on, helicopters were flown off the icebreakers to gather information from the operating areas. Together with the icebreakers radars ice situations could be monitored some nautical miles off the vessel. Despite positive results, such as a decrease in shipping delays and accidents, these methods only covered small areas. The FTA was missing a large-scale overview to allow for an effective vessel traffic planning.

The Satellite Solution

Since 1991, Finland has fully replaced data collected from helicopters with satellite data (ERS-1, Envisat, Radarsat-1 and 2, Sentinel 1). Unlike helicopters, radar satellite images offered wide-area coverage, day and night and in all weather conditions. A single picture taken twice every three days could cover the whole Baltic region. Currently, satellite data is combined with ice charts, weather maps, and in-situ observations to produce information available to each icebreaker captain directly and ready for use through a shared information system called IBNet.

The Result

The switch has resulted in a number of concrete benefits for the agency. For instance, the agency saved an estimated €1m by reducing the fleet’s fuel consumption. Giving up the use of helicopters stationed has saved the agency a further €8.2 m over the last 11 years .[1].

Better route planning has also reduced operational costs for the 20,000 ships travelling to the Finnish ports in an average winter, due to reduced transit and waiting time and a decrease in ice-related damages for shipping companies.

Finally, the Finnish Transport Agengy and Swedish Maritime Administration are operating their icebreaker fleets in a joint cooperation agreement which will allow them to exploit further economies of scale by sharing the use of the IBNet system and coordinating traffic operations. Talks are currently under way for Estonia to also enter the agreement and share ice-breaking services.

“Radar satellite SAR-images are vital for us to keep Northern Baltic merchant vessel going through challenging and continuously changing sea ice” says Capt. Jarkko Toivola Head of Winter navigation Unit, Finish Transport Agency

[1] A detailed analysis of the case can be found in a EARSC report on Copernicus Sentinel’s Products Economic Value available here.