Is Commercial Shipping Coming to the Arctic Circle?

With the rate of ice melting around the North Pole accelerating over the last few decades, the possibility of new Arctic shipping passages opening up has become a hot topic of conversation.

According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, “Through 2015, Arctic sea ice has now been declining at a rate of 13.4 percent per decade relative to the 1981 to 2010 average.”

If the above trend continues due to global climate change, several main routes in the Arctic circle could soon provide reliable shortcuts between Europe and Asia for a good portion of the year. The result would be significantly reduced shipping time and costs, which would benefit both the shipping industry and the companies that transport goods internationally.

The Northern Sea Route

The Northern Sea Route follows the coast of Russia, and is likely to become the first of the available routes that will be ice-free for enough months out of the year to allow for consistent travel. The route stands entirely within Arctic waters and is also within Russia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Sections of the route are currently ice-free for approximately two months each year. The ability to use the Northern Sea Route could reduce the travel time by up to 15 days, by shaving almost 40 percent off the distance required to travel the current route.

The Northwest Passage

Bordered by the United States (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Greenland, Iceland and the Nordic countries, the Northwest Passage was originally discovered in the first decade of the 20th Century, by an explorer named Roald Amundsen. This passage, extending between East Asia and Western Europe, would cut the distance of travel by over 50 percent compared with using the Panama Canal passage.

In October of 2015, the southerly route of the Northwest passage was deemed navigable by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. According to the NSIDC director, Mark Serreze, “What we have seen this summer [summer of 2015] reinforces our conclusions that Arctic sea ice extent is in a long-term decline and that we are headed for a seasonally ice-free ocean.”

Arctic Bridge

The Arctic Bridge Route (ABR) is an Arctic shipping route that runs through the Arctic, beginning at the port of Churchill, Manitoba, and extending to the Russian port of Murmansk. The passage is rarely used, and is currently only open for a quarter of the year. However, experts say it will become increasingly available throughout the year as ice periods decrease due to climate change.

Ian Armstrong, an analyst with Global Risk Insights and researcher with Wikistrat, describes the passage as being a feasible option “For Russia and Canada alike,” saying that “a developed ABR would represent unparalleled trade accessibility to highly important markets.”

Transpolar Sea Route

The Transpolar Sea Route has only been discussed hypothetically at this time. Conditions along the route are not as free of ice as they would need to be for successful navigation. However, the passage could someday potentially enable travel through the central part of the Arctic to the Strait of Bering and the Atlantic Ocean of Murmansk.

The Future of Shipping Through the Arctic

While it’s clear that the ice has thinned considerably within the last decade alone, none of the above-mentioned paths are yet considered safe and reliable by members of the industry. However, some scientists think that by 2050 the entire Arctic Ocean may provide consistent shipping passages during the summer months each year.

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