Arctic possibilities

Although the great Arctic thaw is already bringing new opportunities, it is likely to be many years before trans-Arctic crossings become frequent or commonplace. Many media reports of a new maritime commercial 'highway' running through the Northwest Passage and along the Northern Sea Route have been greatly exaggerated (there were no commercial transits through the Passage at all during 2007 and 2008) and for the next decade at least, and in all likelihood for very much longer, there is little prospect of an 'Arctic Bridge' that runs through the Passage or along the Northern Sea Route and over which international shipping can cross.

Most experts do agree that, with every passing year, talk of a route that runs through the Northwest Passage, linking east and west, becomes somewhat less hollow than before (Map 2). A report prepared for the US Navy in 2001 predicted that 'within five to ten years, the Northwest Passage will be open to non-ice-strengthened vessels for at least one month each summer', while another report, issued jointly by the Institute of the North, the US Arctic Research Commission, and the International Arctic Science Committee, estimates that the Canadian Arctic will experience entire summer seasons of nearly ice-free conditions as early as 2050.4

These are statements that need to be carefully clarified. After all, much of the Arctic has long been accessible, as the Soviet nuclear-powered icebreaker, Arktika, proved in 1977, when it became the first surface vessel to reach the North Pole. The key question is how easily this can be done; in other words, how quickly such a journey can be undertaken, how many icebreakers, if any, are needed to accompany traditional cargo-carrying commercial ships and how much insurance premiums would cost to make such a journey. And if, as these scientists say, the Northwest Passage really is 'nearly ice-free' by the year 2050, then its usage would become commercially viable as insurance premiums fall and icebreaker escort becomes unnecessary. In the coming years shipping crews are likely to become gradually more confident about their ability to navigate safely through the Northwest Passage.

The ice is also very slowly receding along the northern coasts of the Russian Federation, and hopes have been raised, not least in the Kremlin, that this is set to become a key commercial shipping lane (Map 2). Stretching nearly 3,500 miles from the Norwegian coast all the way to the Bering Sea, the Northern Sea Route has usually been navigable from late June to mid-November, although nuclear-powered icebreakers can make their way along it all year round. Widely used in the days of the Soviet Union, it played a vital role in the Kremlin's plans to rebuild the Soviet economy both before and after the Second World War, and became even more important later on. In 1968, around 300 Soviet ships had carried 1 million tons of cargo along the route and by the late 1980s, as its popularity peaked, this tonnage had increased more than sevenfold. But the Northern Sea Route started to fall out of favour after the Soviet Union disintegrated, and in 2006 only 1.5 million tons of cargo was transported along it, including metals from the Noril'sk industrial complex, oil and gas exports from the new Varandey terminal on the Pechora coast, and food imports to settlements along the northern shores. But by the spring of 2009, no non-Russian commercial vessels had journeyed along the route since 1991, although there have been occasional transits made by research ships and military vessels.

Some scientists feel sure that over the coming decades this route, like the Northwest Passage, will also become marginally easier to navigate even in winter, although they have no idea by how much. 'Winter navigation along the western end of the Northern Sea Route, from the Barents Sea to the mouths of the Ob and Yenisey Rivers, will possibly encounter less first-year sea ice', as the authors of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment write, 'while full transit of the Northern Sea Route through Vilkitsky Strait to the Bering Sea is very likely to remain challenging and require icebreaker escort'.5 Whenever the Northern Sea Route does finally become more navigable, international shipping would be able to move along it, using its 'right of innocent passage' under the 1982 Convention, although the Soviet authorities have claimed that several of the adjacent Arctic seas are 'closed seas' or 'internal waters' through which no such right automatically exists.6

It is impossible to predict when, or if, any such maritime highway will ever become a reality, and the likelihood of it materializing in the foreseeable future has sometimes been considerably exaggerated in the media. This became clear in a major report, the Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment, released by the Arctic Council in April 2009. Although 'it is highly plausible that the Arctic Ocean could become completely ice-free for a short summer period much earlier than 2040', ran the report, computer predictions suggest that there will be 'only a modest decrease in winter Arctic sea ice coverage' and that 'there will always be an ice-covered Arctic Ocean in winter'. So while these changes act as 'a facilitator of marine access' and 'it is highly plausible there will be greater marine access and longer seasons of navigation', there will 'not necessarily [be] less difficult ice conditions for marine operations'.7

For shipping companies to make use of these Arctic transit passages would be commercially risky because they are likely to remain ice-bound outside the summer months. Maritime traffic is always under immense pressure to keep to tight schedules that the presence of ice would easily disrupt. So even though the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Routes may offer shorter distances, journey times might well be longer. Nor could investors easily justify spending large sums of money on icebreakers or ice-strengthened ships if year-round transit of these Arctic routes proves impossible or impractical. This is because these types of ships have very limited commercial use outside Arctic waters and therefore might be redundant outside the summer months.

So in the coming years there will certainly be more ships venturing into Arctic waters - between 2006 and 2007, for example, the number of cruise ships docking in Greenland increased from 157 to 222 - but talk of trans-Arctic maritime routes is very speculative.

However, it is quite possible that several different types of commercial carriers could start to use the trans-Arctic trade routes for longer summer periods. In particular, metal ores and timber could be moved from the ports of northern Europe along the Northern Sea Route if more ice-class ships are built and can be chartered on demand. A great deal of oil and gas, perhaps as much as 330,000 barrels every day, could also be shipped along the route from the Russian port at Varandey to Western or perhaps Eastern markets.

In the coming years, it is likely that a great deal of research will be done to weigh the commercial risks of using such trade routes against their benefits, such as the drastically shorter distances they offer.

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