For years people have been speculating that the melting of Arctic sea ice due to climate change would open new shipping lanes. In fact, it’s happening now.
The Financial Times reports that, as of Friday, 204 ships had received permits this year to ply the Northern Sea Route, which connects East Asia to Europe via the waters off of Russia’s northern coast. Last year, just 46 vessels made the trip. Two years ago, the number was four.
Illustration by Bobamnertiopsis / Wikimedia Commons
For now, the route remains more treacherous than the traditional Asia-Europe passage via the Suez Canal. But as Arctic sea ice continues to recede, it will become increasingly viable during the summer months—especially since, as the map at right shows, it’s a much shorter route. The captain of a Russian icebreaker fleet told the FT that the trip from Kobe or Busan to Rotterdam should be 23 days via the northern passage, versus 33 days via the canal. And recent studies suggest that the long-sought Northwest Passage off of Canada’s north coast is likely to open for business in the decades to come as well.
Those looking for upsides to global climate change might count this as one—if they’re fans of Russia, the country best-positioned to capitalize. As Climate Central’s Andrew Freedman recently pointed out, the United States is essentially helpless in the Arctic, with zero Navy surface ships capable of navigating the icy waters and the Senate unwilling to ratify the UN convention that facilitates diplomacy in the region. That’s a big concern, given that the new shipping routes come with dangers ranging from lost lives to environmentally disastrous spills to territorial disputes.
As the Economist put it in a special report last year, there are some benefits to the melting of the Arctic—but the risks are much greater.