Arctic Shipping Offers Some Promise

By Brian Beary, freelancer writer

Last week’s New York Times reported how history is being made as two German ships wend their way through Siberian waters transporting goods from South Korea to Rotterdam, thus becoming the first such vessels to transport goods between Asia and Europe using the Northern Sea Route, which crosses the globe in Russian-controlled waters. With Arctic seas more ice-free and thus navigable due to global warming, ships can shave several thousand miles off their journey compared to using the Suez Canal.

When I wrote the CQ Global Researcher's August 2008 report entitled "Race for the Arctic," the consensus among those I interviewed was that among potential Arctic shipping routes, the Northern Sea Route was the most likely to become commercially viable.

In North America, there has been much talk that the Northwest Passage -- which traverses northern Canada – could become a viable shipping route, especially after it experienced its first ice-free summer in recorded history in 2007. But the passage is less ice-free than the Siberian waters. Moreover, whereas Russia controls the Northern Sea Route alone and does its utmost to promote it, while control of the Northwest Passage is a messier situation. Canada and the United States are embroiled in a decades-long dispute over whether it is an international strait with right of free passage, which Washington claims, or is part of Canada’s territorial waters, which Ottawa insists. A ship travelling from Tokyo to New York would cut 2,600 miles off its journey were it to sail over Canada instead of via the Panama Canal.

That said, Arctic experts told me that even if the journey were shorter, it might actually take longer because ships would need to slow down or stop to avoid ice. With certain commodities, such as the construction materials the German ships are transporting across Siberia, time may not be of the essence. But with others – such as fresh fruit, clothing or cars – companies cannot afford delays. The most likely growth sector in Arctic shipping is not expected to be in transcontinental goods, but rather in regional shipping – transporting resources extracted from the region, such as petroleum, fish and metals.

Canada, Russia, Norway and Denmark are pursuing competing territorial claims within the United Nations framework to control those resources, which are becoming increasingly accessible due to global warming. The United States, even though it owns Alaska in the Arctic, is not in the running for this race because the Senate has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, despite urgings by current and past U.S. Presidents.

For more information, see the CQ Global Researcher article "Race for the Arctic" by Brian Beary [subscription required] or Subscribe to the CQ Global Researcher


Anonymous said...

Dear Brian Beary,
I read your article "Race for the Arctic". Very interesting. However I have a doubt. It is mentioned that New York - Tokyo could shave 2,600 miles of its journey by taking Norhwest Passage instead of Panama Canal route; Also, London- Tokyo could reduce 5,000 miles by taking Northeast passage instead of Suez Canal. Are you using "nautical" miles? I saw other values in internet. Which is the source of this information?
Thank you.