The Melting North – a Frosty Sea Route to Asia

Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, the first person to complete the crossing of the Northern Sea Route. Painting by Georg von Rosen.

The age of discovery may have passed, and the times of great explorers like Vasco D Gama or Magellan be long gone, but there are still discoveries to be made and new sea routes to be found. Although not a new find exactly, the icy trade route called the Northern Sea Route has recently been the object of renewed attentions, with melting arctic icecaps now making it possible to cut the sailing distance to Asia. The most dominant shipping route through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean by Singapore may just have found itself a new competitor in world trade.

Although not its discoverer, Swedish-Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld was in 1879 the first person to complete the crossing of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). However, at first the route was not seen as a realistic alternative for ships carrying cargo between Europe and Asia. Icecaps and ice sheets made it treacherous; even Nordenskiöld’s expedition had to wait several months for the ice to melt before it could continue on its journey. The NSR shipping lane was by and by somewhat forgotten, until last year when 46 ships sailed through it. This was by no means the first time this trade route had been used this century, but on this occasion it carried 1.2m tonnes of cargo, quite an increase on previous years. An intriguing possibility presented itself: had a new trade route between Asia and Europe suddenly opened up as a result of global warming and shrinking icecaps?

The NSR, which passes along the northern Russian Siberian coast, is about 40 per cent shorter than the usual route taken through the Suez Canal. The distance between, for example, Shanghai and Hamburg is 5,200 kilometres shorter via this route, and ships sailing between Hammerfest in Norway and Japan are estimated to save up to 20 days. The last two years have seen a tenfold increase in the number of vessels crossing the NSR, from only four in 2010 to 46 vessels in 2012. Petroleum protects make up the largest cargo group, with iron ore and coal forming the second largest.

The largest shipping route between West and East goes through the Suez Canal in Egypt and the Malacca Strait crossing the Singapore Strait. Over 50,000 ships pass through the Malacca strait every year, carrying about one quarter of the world’s traded goods, thus making it one of the most important shipping lanes in the world. The small nation of Singapore relies heavily on this trade and has one of the world’s largest and busiest ports. Naturally Singapore is concerned that future competition from the NSR could threaten its economy. This would explain Singapore’s – otherwise somewhat puzzling – application for permanent observer status in the Arctic council. Along with countries like Japan, China, Korea and India, Singapore has a new-born interest in the cold north.

The Singapore Strait, one of the busiest sea routes in the world.

Despite concerns, the NSR is not a real competitor of the Suez Canal or the Singapore Strait when it comes to attracting trade vessels, at least not yet. Long winters with large ice sheets still make the arctic shipping lane somewhat treacherous and only safe to sail through during certain summer weeks. Furthermore, there is a need for investment in ports and icebreakers along the almost deserted northern coastline of Russia. Dependency on Russia to safeguard the NSR is another issue that might prove to be an obstacle. During a visit to Singapore in November last year, Norway’s foreign minister Espen Barth Eide responded to Singaporean concerns about the NSR by saying “I believe that container traffic will still go on the traditional route but certain types of traffic where the date of arrival is not as important… can use the other route“. By this he meant that, since the NSR is only passable during the summer months, this route might be more appealing to those who are shipping goods such as iron ore, where transportation costs matter more than the date of arrival.

Nonetheless, cargo transport through the NSR will only increase as icecaps in the arctic sea continue to melt. Last year the first Chinese vessel sailed through the NSR, and according to China’s long-term calculations, 5-15 per cent of its international trade will pass through the NSR by 2020. Furthermore, some researchers predict that by 2050 the ice sheet will be so thin that ships will even be able to travel through the North Pole, a shipping route that is a good 20 per cent shorter than the NSR. Even the treacherous Northwest Passage, passing by the northern Canadian coastline, is predicted to be opened up for ordinary shipping. Singapore and the Suez Canal will certainly see themselves challenged as the melting artic attracts more attention and more traffic.


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