(Detailed PDF Map)
Polar Shipping Routes
Global climate change is offering new opportunities for international transportation networks, notably with a trend of receding ice around the North Pole. If this trend continues parts of the Arctic could be used more reliably for navigation, at least during summer months and for longer periods of time. The main trans-Arctic routes include:
  • The Northern Sea Route along the arctic coast of Russia. This is the maritime route that is likely to be free of ice first and would reduce a maritime journey between East Asia and Western Europe from 21,000 km using the Suez Canal to 12,800 km, cutting transit time by 10-15 days.
  • The Northwest Passage crossing Canada's Arctic Ocean could become usable on a regular basis by 2020, lessening maritime shipping distances substantially. The maritime journey between East Asia and Western Europe would take about 13,600 km using the Northwest Passage, while taking 24,000 km using the Panama Canal. In 2007 the Northwest Passage was open during the summer months for the first time in recorded history, but it remains to be seen how stable this opening is.
  • The Arctic Bridge linking the Russian port of Murmansk or the Norwegian port of Narvik to the Canadian port of Churchill could be used, mostly for the grain trade.
  • The Transpolar Sea Route would use the central part of the Arctic to link the most directly the Strait of Bering and the Atlantic Ocean of Murmansk. This route is at this point hypothetical as it involves ice-free conditions that are not yet observed.
From Rotterdam to:
Yokohama: 20,600 km (Suez Canal); 8,500 km (Northern Sea Route)
Shanghai: 19,300 km (Suez Canal); 14,875 km (Northern Sea Route)
Vancouver: 16,400 km (Panama Canal); 12,850 km (Northern Sea Route)
In 2009, two German ships, Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight, completed with a Russian icebreaker escort the first commercial journey across the Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage) linking Busan to Rotterdam with several stopovers.
The consideration of arctic routes for commercial navigation purposes remains a very speculative endeavor, mainly for three main reasons:
  • First, it is uncertain to what extent the receding perennial ice cover is a confirmed trend or simply part of a long term climatic cycle. Even if the Artic routes became regularly open during the summer, the medium terms underlines that that Arctic would still remain closed to commercial navigation during the winter months. As of 2010, the ice free conditions of most Arctic shipping routes were only about 30 days. Since maritime shipping companies are looking for regular and consistent services, this seasonality has limited commercial appeal.
  • Second, there is very limited economic activity around the Arctic Circle, implying that shipping services crossing the Arctic have almost no opportunity to drop and pick-up cargo as they pass through. Thus, unlike other long distance commercial shipping routes there is limited revenue generation potential for shipping lines along the Arctic route, which forbids the emergence of transshipment hubs. Shipping in the arctic is suitable for point to point services linking directly a source port and a destination port. This value proposition could improve if resources (oil and mining) around the Arctic are extracted in greater quantities, which would favor bulk shipping.
  • The Arctic remains a frontier in terms of weather forecast, charting and building a navigation system, implying uncertainties and unreliability for navigation. This implies that substantial efforts have to be made to insure that navigation can take in place in a safe manner along well defined navigation routes. Ships also need to be certified to operate in arctic conditions, which increases costs.
In view of all of the above maritime shipping companies are not yet considering seriously the commercial potential of the Arctic as a navigation shortcut. Still, the rise in bunker fuel prices and slow steaming practices can be considered incentives for the development of niche services that could use the Arctic as a shortcut between major markets of the northern hemisphere. By doing so, shipping services would have the option to mitigate the distance advantage of the shorter Arctic routes with the option of slower speeds and their fuel consumption benefits.