Amid ongoing international discussions about the Arctic sea as it unfreezes more of the year and opens for traffic, Russian maritime companies are starting to use its widening channels as a sea route that can shorten the distance between Europe and Asia during longer and longer parts of the summer as the polar ice pack recedes. Running along Russia’s shore, this expanding new “Northern Sea Route” is the sea-going version of the “over the pole” flights that have become routine for aircraft. [Here is a New York Times map of the NSR through the Eastern Arctic]
Led by Russian shipping, cargo vessels are finding NSR competitive with the Europe-to-Asia passage via the Suez Canal. Depending on conditions and the exact itinerary, the voyage from Rotterdam in the Netherlands to Yokohama in Japan, via the NSR is about 4,450 miles shorter than the currently preferred roughly 11,000-mile route through the Suez, according to Russia’s Transportation Ministry.
Of course, the Arctic route has a way to go before catching up to the 18,000 ships a year sailing through the Suez Canal. But the NSR is set to pick up traffic. For cargo vessels, time is money because of fuel savings. This is an especially clear advantage for shipments that do not involve precise just-in-time delivery so the early movers on the Arctic route are bulk shipping minerals and other raw materials – which not incidentally are now being mined more extensively near the Arctic Circle thanks to global warming.
The emergence of the Arctic sea as a “new ocean” – a side effect of climate change due to global warming -- has sweeping implications for production of oil, for new fishing grounds, for safety and security and for national competition.
Experts dispute when exactly the NSR will be ice-free during the entire 120 days of summer (rather than the current 20 to 30 days). Conservative estimates range between the year 2040 and 2060, a date implying that returns on infrastucture investments for use of the NSR are to remain in the future. But the tempo is picking up in oil exploration, mining revival and shipping.
In commercial shipping, Russia has jumped off to a head start. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin says the way forward is simple, “the Arctic is the shortcut between the largest markets of Europe and the Asia-Pacific region: it is an excellent opportunity to optimize costs,” he said recently. In his view, the commercial possibilities are a silver lining to global warming. Paradoxically, Iceland’s President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson acknowledges, “new opportunities are opening for our nations at the same time we understand that the threat of carbon emissions have become imminent.” He and Putin both spoke at the Second International Arctic Forum held in Arkhangelsk, a Russian port city just south of the Arctic Circle.
For now, however, it seems to be only Russia with the capabilities to make shipping through the Arctic a viable option. Other countries cannot match the Russian fleet of ice-breakers (some nuclear powered) and “ice-ready” merchant tankers that can follow the ice breakers and handle the risk of submerged icebergs.
But that competitive advantage may be overtaken if, as scientists predict, the presence of ice declines permanently in the Arctic summer. That would reduce the need for big, expensive ice-breakers and attract interest for shippers, who could cut short trips from Europe to Asia by some 4000 miles or more.
In recent years, most of the initial use of the new sea lanes have hugged the shore and mainly supported mining and oiling ventures to the north. But now Russian waters are ice-clear further out, allowing larger ships to pass through shortening the trip by days and lessening fuel expenses.
It is still too early, however, to be able to count on mass shipping through this region. “Natural variations and unpredictable feed-back effects could counteract the trend and even stabilize the ice for a bit,” said Marika Holland of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “So I wouldn’t sign any shipping contracts for the next 5 to 10 years, but maybe the next 20 to 30,” he said. [Here is a compelling video showing the summer ice fluctuations around the polar cap over the last 30 years and the way the Arctic is opening wider and deeper channels for surface ships.]
But revitalization is already under way on the promise of new shipping capabilities. Port towns, long abandoned, could become objects of revitalization. Places like Kirkenes in northern Norway or the Alaskan city of Adak are potentially in line to become important hubs for shipping in the Arctic. And the new mining opening (or reopening) in the far north is reflected in a decision by the Norwegian shipping company, Tschudi, to purchase an old iron-ore mine in northern Norway: the company plans on shipping ore to China via the NSR, expecting to save $300,000 in costs per trip.
The new NSR amounts to the fulfillment of long-held dream of finding the “Northeast Passage” from Europe to Asia across the Arctic. Sought for centuries, the quest proved premature and claimed the lives of many explorers. Now finally open most of the year (and easily charted by satellite), it is a counterpart to the “Northwest Passage” on the other side of the Arctic and close to Canada. (It is called “Northwest” because it is in the Western hemisphere while the “Northeast” near Russia is in the Eastern hemisphere.)
The Northwest route runs up the St. Lawrence river through Canada, but many potential users shy away because of issues raised by Canada about asserting its national sovereignty over waters that many countries claim are international waters. Canada agues that they are part of its territorial waters and require Canada’s permission for commercial use by foreign vessels.
Lorin Speltz is Editorial Assistant at European Affairs