Shipping developers eye up route through melting Arctic

4 min

While the rate of ice loss in the Arctic has alarmed environmentalists this summer, it has left maritime developers rubbing their hands with glee, as the prospect of a commercially viable Northern Sea Route looks increasingly likely.


Arctic Ocean here we come! China became the latest country to navigate the Northern Sea Route last week when its vessel Snow Dragon arrived in Iceland. Linking the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, the Northern Sea Route allows ships to cut down on travel time from Asia to Europe by edging through the icy waters between north Russia and the North Pole.

China’s adventure shows its growing interest in the route. But they’re not the only ones whose appetites have been whet by the thawing of the Arctic: many in the Northern Hemisphere would welcome a commercial course that could rival the current route.

Until now, ships have been forced to pass by Indonesia, India, the Gulf and finally through the crowded Suez Canal – which saw almost 18,000 vessels chug through last year alone – before reaching the Mediterranean.

Following a northern course instead – west above Canada or east above Russia – cuts the journey time by half, as pointed out by Chairman of Norway-based Tschudi Shipping, Felix H. Tschudi, in an interview with Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun published on Tuesday:

"If a cargo ship with a maximum load capacity of 40,000 tons can pass through the Northern Sea Route, that will shorten the journey by 22 days and cost $839,000 [670,000 euros] less than going through the Suez Canal." The article also notes that 1,000 tonnes less fuel is needed for the northern journey.

Record summer thaw

Also known as the Northeast Passage, the Northern Sea Route has only recently become accessible to large vessels due to the melting of the Arctic. Germany was the first Western power to make the journey in 2009, and was soon followed by Japan, Denmark,
Canada and the UK.

In 2011, a total of 37 vessels made the trip. But this year saw record levels of thaw, allowing China’s icebreaker an easy passage, with the crew reporting an “astonishing” lack of ice as they skirted the North Pole.

“The Polar ice cap is currently smaller than it’s ever been,” explains Valérie Masson-Delmotte, a palaeoclimatologist and global warming specialist from the Climate and Environment Sciences Laboratory outside Paris. The US-based National Snow and Ice Data Centre registered record levels of ice loss in mid-August, when the Arctic mass shrivelled to 5.09 million square kilometres, or half of the 1979 to 2000 average for the same date. Today, it barely meets the size of the European Union.

And it’s not over yet. Masson-Delmotte says that the ice usually stops melting at the end of September, meaning the Arctic mass will get smaller yet before it begins to grow again in autumn. That’s good news for shipping giants, who benefit from the Northern Sea Route’s ever-longer summer accessibility. Today it’s navigable for around two months; a decade ago the passage was open for just a few weeks at the height of summer.

Nonetheless, the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage are far from becoming rivals to the Suez Canal, says Masson-Delmotte. “There’s certainly a new channel opening up,” she admits. “But it will be a few decades yet before we get to a point [when they’re busy commercial shipping routes].”

Environmental involvement

Wildly varying year-on-year conditions in the Arctic Ocean are far from an attractive prospect for shipping companies who need to schedule crossings during a short-lived period and in a region which is frozen over for the best part of the year. While 2012 was exceptionally mild, 2013 could make the Northern Sea Route a far less hospitable passage for seafarers.

That’s not to mention the infrastructure needed to accommodate an increased flow of traffic. There are currently very few ports along the route, which would pose as a problem in the case of an accident, and subsequently make the cost of insurance substantial. Each commercial vessel would be obligated to travel with a naval escort, costing around 400,000 dollars per crossing, says Liu Miaojia, a navigation expert at Bimco.

But the true cost of the venture could be the environment. European environmental group Bellona describes the Arctic as "a more sensitive environment than regular places,” which would be better left alone. “We should abstain from developing the Arctic,” project coordinator Igor Kudrik told Asahi Shimbun.

Environmentalists also argue that pollution from the vessels will accelerate the melting of the Polar ice cap, pushing sea levels even higher even faster. They also warn that an oil spill in the region would be far more complex to manage due to the special formation of ice masses.

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