The federal government plans to step up its efforts to chart northern Canadian waters this year, as Arctic sea ice keeps shrinking and shipping traffic in the region grows.

Vessel transits in Arctic waters grew by about 25 per cent from 2007 to 2008, according to the Canadian Hydrographic Service. As well, cruise ship traffic grew from 50 vessels in 2004 to 250 vessels in 2007.

However, only 10 per cent of the 7 million square kilometres of marine areas north of 60 degrees latitude is covered by modern charts.

Charting more areas would ensure the safety of cruise ships, sealift vessels and local traffic, said Savi Narayanan, director general of the hydrographic service.

"Our purpose is to have the main traffic areas, the main corridors and approaches to the communities, well charted," Narayanan told CBC News.

"That should make a significant improvement on [the] water situation there now."

The Canadian Hydrographic Service provides charts for vessels of all types, including cruise ships, commercial ships, military and coast guard vessels.

Narayanan said the service recently received funding to survey the area around Pangnirtung, Nunavut, where a harbour is expected to be built soon.

The service also recently completed charting work in the Nanisivik area near Arctic Bay, where there are plans to build a military deep-sea port.

Hydrographers have also recently surveyed the Coronation Gulf, Sachs Harbour, Holman Inlet, King William Island and areas in the Beaufort Sea.

Underwater vehicles to help extend season

Narayanan said weather and ice conditions in the North create a short field season, so the hydrographic service plans to use autonomous underwater vehicles under the ice this year to extend fieldwork there.

"We did a preliminary test this year, and we are going to actually deploy them in the next field season," she said.

The research icebreaker CCGS Amundsen will also help out with charting, using multi-beam sonar equipment it has on board to map wherever it goes.

Last year, Desgagnés Transarctik Inc. of Montreal became the first shipping firm to ship sealift cargo through the Northwest Passage.

It plans to return to the passage this year while another company, Nunavut Eastern Arctic Shipping Inc., is also adding the passage to its shipping route.

"The evolution of the sealift is very fast, and, of course, the charting is not going as fast as it should be to go parallel to this demand," said Waguih Rayes, general manager of Desgagnés Transarctik's Arctic division.

Rayes said as shipping demand grows, companies will need better charts to protect both the ships and the northern environment from accidents.

Given how much of the Arctic needs to be covered by modern charts, Narayanan said, it could take generations to chart all of it at the present rate.

With files from Patricia Bell