Is newly traversed passage through the Arctic about to revolutionise shipping?


  • The melting of Arctic sea ice sooner due to climate change has been widely noted, including the fact that the Northern Sea Route (along Russia’s northern extremity) could potentially cut the travel distance between East Asia and Western Europe (currently via the Malacca Strait, Indian Ocean, Gulf of Aden and Suez Canal) from 21,000 km to just 12,800 km, and the journey time by 10-15 days.

So, is the world on the cusp of a shipping revolution as a consequence of climate change?

The vanishing ice

  • The extent of sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean has declined in every decade since the 1980s, measurements taken every September (when the ice cover shrinks to its least) show. As climate change is resulting in parts of the Arctic warming up to 100% faster than elsewhere, there is evidence that ancient, thick ice is disappearing as well. The average Arctic sea ice volume that was 3,302 cubic miles (or more than 13,750 cubic km) between 1985 to 2000 is expected to fall to an average of 1,480 cubic miles (or less than 6,200 cubic km) between 2015 and 2030 under a moderate emissions scenario, and to just 737 cubic miles (3,000 cubic km) on average between 2045 and 2060. This is about 25% less than the volume of the Grand Canyon carved by the Colorado river in Arizona.

The emerging route

  • As the seas warm, it is conceivable that ships may, by the middle of this century, be able to pass directly over the North Pole from the north of Russia to the north of Canada, at least for some weeks in the summer-fall.
  • With what is known as “middle of the road” warming — higher than the target set by the 2015 Paris Climate Accord but lower than the most extreme forecasts of climate change — shipping activity in the region is likely to increase significantly over the next decade, also because Russia is likely to develop oil and gas fields in Siberia. “We know what is likely to happen to sea ice,”
  • The New York Times quoted University of Reading researcher Dr Nathanael Melia, who has calculated how shipping routes might change as warming continues to the middle of the century, as saying in a report last year.
  • “It will reduce decade on decade, and open up vast swathes of the Arctic Ocean.” As voyage times fall to less than three weeks in some cases, Arctic shipping could become more attractive than the southern routes in coming decades, Dr Melia’s research has shown.

Costs, imponderables

  • But theory may not translate easily into practice. Costs will be a major consideration, as also the fact that Arctic ice conditions will still vary greatly from year to year, discouraging shippers for whom keeping to schedules is important.
  • Increased insurance costs and safety considerations have been seen as other deterrents.
  • A report published 2016 by the Copenhagen Business School concluded that trans-Arctic shipping by ordinary vessels between Europe and Asia was unlikely to become economically viable before 2040, The NYT report said.
  • Indeed, immediately after its triumphant announcement over the weekend, a spokesperson for Maersk cautioned: “Currently, we do not see the Northern Sea Route as a viable commercial alternative to existing east-west routes… The passage is only feasible for around three months a year… We also must consider that ice-classed vessels (will) require… an additional investment.”


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