Arctic and subarctic straits and seas in trade and geostrategy

Global climate change opens up new opportunities for international transport networks, particularly with the trend towards glacier retreat around the North Pole.

If the trend continued, Arctic routes could be used more reliably, at least during the summer months and for longer periods of time.

The North Sea route to the Arctic coast of Russia is likely to be ice-free and would reduce sea travel between Europe and East Asia from 24,000 kilometres, using the Suez Canal, to 13,600 km, thus reducing transit time by 10-15 days.

Furthermore, the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic Ocean could become usable on a regular basis within the next few years, thus reducing shipping distances significantly.

Instead, the sea voyage between East Asia and Western Europe requires to travel 24,000 kilometres, also through the Panama Canal.

The Northeast Passage is the shortest sea route from Europe to Asia. Its only disadvantage is that it is located in an icy area for a period of about six months a year and cannot be crossed. This, however, seems to be changing. Global warming is changing the rules of the game, opening up new and – in some cases – unexpected opportunities for freight transport.

The increasing use of this hitherto neglected route provides many opportunities for commercial shipping. The Arctic and subarctic sea route is also considered to be the shortest sea passage between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean.

Arctic routes can save much time and fuel, as well as reduce fuel waste emissions, which is particularly important in an era of fierce competition between shipping companies and of ever increasing attention paid to environmental issues and ecology.

A further advantage is that this route allows ships to circumvent areas where piracy is rampant (such as the Straits of Malacca and the Red Sea region).

There are certainly many advantages, but also a major disadvantage. The route is only used by a relatively small number of ships. There are more ships passing through the Suez Canal every day than those sailing along the route between the Barents Sea and the Bering Strait.

The reason is simple: due to frost, ships can only navigate between early July and late November. Even in this short period of time the route is complicated; Russia charges taxes for crossing the territorial waters and you need to use icebreakers to clear the way in difficult weather conditions.

This entails additional costs. Moreover, fast climate change, sudden ice formations and irregular icebergs can also cause severe problems.

Since the infrastructure in Russia’s Northern ports has been in poor condition since the collapse of the Soviet Union, emergency situations could endanger ships.

Owing to global warming, this relatively short time window for traffic would become longer in the coming decades. In the past decades, the size and thickness of the Arctic ice cap have shrunk significantly. On August 29, 2008, the Northeast and Northwest Passages were even free of ice for the first time. Since then, the ice cap has further shrunk and thinned.

For example, an Asian icebreaker conducted a research expedition from the Pacific to the North Atlantic in August 2012. It encountered less ice than expected and the return journey took less time than the outward journey.

In the future the Northeast Passage could be completely ice-free in summer. From a historical viewpoint, this region has always been considered a harsh environment and its development is an important pioneering achievement.

As early as the 12th century, the Russians set off for Eastern Siberia by navigating in sight of the coastline. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Netherlands, Great Britain, Sweden and Denmark often tried to find another way to Asia, but they never succeeded.

It was only in 1878-79 that the Swedish explorer, Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901), made an expedition with the sailing ship Vega, leaving from Göteborg to the Bering Strait, sailing along the Northern coasts of the whole Eurasia and solving once and for all the problem of the Northeast Passage. Previously, in 1875 and in 1876, he had only managed to reach the mouth of the Yenisey river and was forced to come back because of ice.

Strictly speaking, however, it is not really correct to call it a success – at least from a theoretically commercial viewpoint–as the ship Vega was blocked by ice and trapped in the Bering Strait for ten months.

It was only in 1932 that the Soviet icebreaker Aleksandr Sibirjakov made his first successful passage in a single season. In the summer of 1967, that route was finally opened to the international shipping industry.

Later, before the collapse of the USSR caused a sharp drop in the volume of shipments in the Northeast Passage, nuclear-powered icebreakers cleared the route and enabled ships to transit (at the latest since 1987, 331 times).

In 2009, the Bremen transport and shipping company was the first to use that route again with two cargo ships, thus causing a sensation. According to the shipping company, the two icebreakers leaving Vladivostok at the end of summer 2009 were both class E3 – therefore suitable for sailing through the North Pole.

In September 2018, the Danish container ship Venta Maersk crossed the Northeast Passage in 37 days: It was the first container ship to do so. As it is a large container ship, its class is 1A (it can cross up to one-metre thick ice). It is specially designed with a reinforced hull for being used in cold water (minimum -25°C).

The maiden voyage of the Venta Maersk revealed a serious flaw, so it is unlikely that a large 40,000-ton container ship will sail along this route in the near future. The problem was that some parts of the route have a draught of only 11 metres, which is too low for a large container ship.

The cargo carrying capacity of the Venta Maersk is usually less than 3,600 TEU, but the shallow water means that it can only hold 600 refrigerated containers.

The construction of large container ships does not meet ice breaking standards, and is also constrained by more unfavourable factors such as length. Hence the Northeast Passage will never be comparable to the Suez Canal in terms of transport volume.

Great progress is currently being made in the construction of flexible cargo ships capable of crossing ice and cope with difficult environments without icebreakers clearing the way to them. This type of vessel can be used for certain types of goods that cannot take longer traditional routes.

Although it will take time, the global economy is expected to reap many potential benefits from shorter supply routes to production sites and sales markets in Europe and Asia.

Crossing the Arctic Ocean risks becoming a decisive factor in the fierce price war between major shipping companies.

However, environmentalists have warned against the damage caused by increased traffic. They fear that this will have a lasting negative impact on the extremely sensitive Arctic ecosystem.

Moreover, the more ships on the route, the greater the risk of severe accidents in this region rich in natural resources.

However, the world’s joint efforts to tackle global warming will put an end to such plans before then. A case in point is the expedition of the German research icebreaker Polarstern, which started on September 20, 2019 and came to an end this autumn.

The MOSAiC research (Multidisciplinary Drift Observatory for Arctic Climate Research) was conducted by the Alfred-Wegener-Institut Helmholtz-Zentrum fuer Polar und Meeresforschung.

The results of MOSAiC will contribute to a better understanding of the regional and global consequences of Arctic climate change and sea ice loss and will improve weather and climate forecasting, as well as the opportunities of exploiting this potential economic and trade route in the future.

Giancarlo Elia Valori