Governments and businessmen have long been aware of just how much an Arctic Bridge might have to offer them. In 1957, they had watched with great interest as three icebreakers of the US coast guard became the first ships to cross the Northwest Passage, covering 4,500 miles of semi-charted water in 64 days. Twelve years later a number of Western oil companies sent a specially reinforced super tanker, the Manhattan, through the Passage to get a more accurate idea of whether it was a viable route for moving Alaskan oil from one side of the world to another. The purpose of the mission, as one of the organizers argued, was 'to gather scientific and engineering data for guidance in building a fleet of super tanker icebreakers that may turn these desert waters into teeming sea lanes'.
Such high hopes were cruelly dashed, however. The Manhattan was stuck in the ice no less than 25 times, and on each occasion an accompanying icebreaker had to pull it free. Not surprisingly, its sponsors decided that the route was just too difficult and expensive to use and opted to build a pipeline in Alaska instead.8
Others shared their scepticism. In 1993, Moscow commissioned a special research study with Norway and Japan to carefully explore the viability of using the Northern Sea Route, but its findings, published 6 years later, were very disappointing. Although the route had obvious advantages, ran the report of the International Northern Sea Route Programme, they were heavily outweighed by the sheer cost of building and operating ice-strengthened vessels, which would have to be used even if a Russian icebreaker travelled in front. Assuming these icebreakers would be available, the ships would have to be particularly small in order to get through the shallow straits in the New Siberian Islands and to keep strictly within the path cut by the Russian icebreakers. Such small ships would only be capable of carrying relatively small cargoes and were therefore far less commercially viable than their much bigger counterparts that made their way through the Suez Canal. The report also argued that, in such extreme conditions, ships would be completely incapable of keeping to schedule, particularly if Russian icebreaker assistance should prove to be unreliable.
If, at some future point, the ice does retreat sufficiently, the implications for international shipping would certainly be staggering. Sailing between London and Tokyo, for example, currently involves going through the Suez Canal, but ships could instead cross the Arctic Bridge, moving either eastwards over the Northern Sea Route, or else sail the Atlantic and go through the Northwest Passage, to reduce the journey by some 3,500 miles and, if they avoid traversing the Panama Canal, by as much as 5,500 miles. Overall, these new routes would cut the length of some of these journeys by as much as one-third. Key markets, such as Japan, China, India and South Korea, would become far more accessible while Alaskan oil could be moved to refineries, as the Manhattan tried to prove decades earlier, by tanker. 'Shipping along the Northern Sea Route will cut sailing distances from Bremen to Shanghai by as much as 3,200 nautical miles', as Niels Stolberg, the head of a big German shipping company, Beluga, has emphasized.9 Using this route, or the Northwest Passage, to reach Far Eastern consumers 'would slash our costs by half' if it ever became a reality, says a representative of a British company, Angus & Ross, that is currently excavating Greenland's mineral deposits.10
Reducing the journey length of international freight has all sorts of implications that are vital in the world of commerce. Most obviously it allows carriers to cut their fuel costs, which imposed a particularly heavy burden during the drastic increase in the price of crude oil between 2003 and 2007, and to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. It also keeps to a minimum the cost of chartering large container ships, which are leased on a daily basis and command high premiums, especially when trade is booming and the market is tight.11 Ships would also avoid paying large sums of money to use the Panama and Suez Canals, either because they could avoid these waterways altogether or because alternative routes would give the canals competition, forcing them to reduce their transit fees. This may prove particularly important over the next few years because the Panama Canal is currently undergoing a hugely expensive upgrade, costing around $7 billion by the time it is due to be completed in 2014, and some analysts estimate that transit fees will have to rise perhaps fourfold to pay for the improvements.
Altogether this means that a large container ship could slash its costs if it uses the Northwest Passage or Northern Sea Route, saving exporters billions of dollars a year. The savings would be even greater for the so-called 'megaships', the huge vessels that, since they were first built in the late 1990s, have been unable to fit through the Panama and Suez Canals and so currently sail around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn.
There are numerous other Arctic possibilities. Some experts even think that, when enough ice has melted, a new route could eventually be opened that runs straight over the North Pole. Such a route, which would probably go between Iceland and Alaska's Dutch Harbor, would connect newly built shipping 'megaports' in the North Atlantic with those in the Pacific and radiate outward to other ports in a hub-and-spoke system.12 But this looks an even more remote prospect than the opening of a sea route through the Northwest Passage, and may well never happen at all.
Distant though it is, the prospect of an Arctic Bridge has raised eyebrows because of the growing importance of two key markets, both of which would become much more accessible to European and American cargos when it opens. Of course Japan has long been a huge market as well as a key exporter, but it is only in recent years, mainly since the mid-1990s, that the economies of both China and India have surged dramatically ahead, expanding by between 10 per cent and 15 per cent every year. China, in particular, is a key exporter, and its goods could be shipped to Western markets much more quickly along the Northwest Passage. But as prosperity and standards of living soar and populations continue to rise, both countries also have booming domestic markets that the outside world is also keen to reach.
Any such Arctic Bridge would also offer international shipping two distinct advantages over existing routes. One is the avoidance of an old scourge that, centuries after it was stamped out, has recently returned to haunt some stretches of coast.
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