The Arctic is melting: well not quite as alarmingly as those four words suggest. Coastal and some pack-ice is melting due to contested claims of global warming and it opening up the possibility of more routes across the northern route. With due acknowledgement of the gravity of those thoughts, we can say that this melting is offering openings and possibilities of new services for some shipping companies. The reality is that the Arctic could be a faster and more direct route between Asia and ports in Europe and across the Atlantic to eastern North America.
The Russian oil and gas exploration programmes have opened up parts of the area but commercial shipping has been prevented from using potential routes due to the climatic conditions. This is set to change despite the warnings from environmentalists and even some maritime experts who warn of dangerous conditions and vessels unable to cope with the temperatures and pack-ice. There is not a great deal of traffic in the region and it would be untrue to say it will pose a serious threat to the Panama and Suez canals! But the minerals, oil and gas being exploited off the main Arctic routes need to reach markets easier and faster – and it might just provide an incentive for the Arctic route to be used.
The Chinese and Russians are likely to be the big players – and beneficiaries – in this scenario: the route will run along the Siberian coastline into northern China and it is unlikely to be a totally free-for-all charge across these waters. Currently most of the ships using this route tend to be icebreakers, short-sea shipping vessels built to withstand thicker ice and naval vessels. Commercial traffic could signal a change in Russian attitudes to things such as permits and access to certain areas but even the best estimates of when the area could be ice-free for traffic are still in the mid-2030s.
The benefits for the global economy are harder to predict than when the ice will clear although other considerations will need to be centred on navigation, safety and insurance issues. Reading through some recent reports it is suggested that a new route through the region could lop 20 days from the current 48 days it takes a ship to travel from Rotterdam through the Suez Canal to China. That’s impressive and appealing, especially with an increase in faster deliveries from growing consumer markets.
What is clear is that in order to preserve the environment and maintain a peaceful and hassle-free transition through any new Arctic route, the world’s shipping powers need to appreciate that co-operation protects everything, including the bottom line!