If you are well-versed with the marine world, you must have already heard about the Arctic shipping routes.
Going with the general idea, the Arctic shipping routes are the maritime paths that the ships follow in order to travel through the Arctic region. Currently, three major routes exist that are responsible for linking the Pacific Ocean with the Atlantic Ocean. These main routes are commonly named as the Northeast Passage (along with the Russian and Norwegian coasts), the Northwest Passage (along with the Northern Canadian and Alaskan coast) and the Transpolar Sea Route (through the North Pole). Apart from the above-mentioned passages, the Arctic Bridge that connects Russia and Canada; and the Northern Sea Route that trails the Russian coast is also utilized to a great extent. The mariners show interest in travelling through the Arctic routes because they offer a shorter transit time between several economic poles, like East Asia and Northern Europe. However, the time factor depends largely on the ice conditions in the Arctic region and the Mariners need to be wary of it. The best sign that indicates a favourable ice condition is if the particular route is open almost all year round for the vessels to pass.
Arctic Routes and Its Challenges
The development of the Arctic routes has always been difficult owing to the unpredictable, unsuitable conditions prevalent in the region. The extreme weather conditions along with the chance of colliding with icebergs can prove to be tough on the crew and the vessel. The scarcity of well-established ports and the lack of solid infrastructure of the remote Arctic area can lead to insufficient communication that can spell disaster. Moreover, the possibility of human error cannot be ruled out, as well. According to the recent changes in the global climatic conditions, the steady melting of sea ice has fueled the dreams of highlighting the new possibilities in the world of shipping. With the drastic variations in climate, a tempting prospect of building new routes and accessing new markets has opened up and it is being considered as a great boon for the marine industry. The rapid reduction in sea ice over the last decade has compelled the shipping lines to contemplate about an increase in cargo transportation in the Arctic region.
The Northern Sea Route (NSR) is the most travelled route in the Arctic region but the journey is fraught with hidden dangers and a rather hostile environment. In reality, the NSR is actually a series of passageways along the Russian Arctic region that crosses the five marginal seas called the Laptev Sea, the Chukchi Sea, the Barents Sea, the Kara Sea and the East Siberian Sea. In August 2018, the International Union of Maritime Insurers (IUMI) has passed its statement to the media that the insurance meant for voyages shall only be granted on a case-by-case basis.
Arctic Routes Act as Connectors
The Arctic Route can serve as the best link between different parts of the world, as per the results of a research carried out by the Copenhagen Business School. In fact, the Arctic Route has the strong potential to even perform better than the Panama Canal and reduce the journey time between the continents of Asia and Europe by at least 40%. If we consider the comparison presented by the searoutes.com, if a vessel used the Suez Canal to travel from South Korea to Germany, it will take approximately 34 days to reach the destination. On the other hand, if the vessel had opted for travelling through the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa), it will take 46 days to reach Germany. By using the Northern Sea route instead, we can significantly cut down on the transit time as it will take just 23 days to reach the port in Germany. Not only does it save precious time for the shipping companies, but also it saves a huge amount of money.
Benefits of Using the Northern Sea Route
The Northern Sea Route is capable of providing the best commercial opportunities that will turn out to be extremely beneficial for the shipping industry. In 2012, no less than 46 vessels had chosen to operate via the NSR and carried 4 million tons. The following year, that figure shot up to an incredible 71 million – quite a success for the Arctic Route! As luck would have it, the traffic was considerably lessened in 2014 because of the crash in oil prices. With the growth in oil prices by 2016, the traffic in NSR had flourished once again. Coming back to the present-day scenario, there has been an increase of 81% in vessels availing the NSR service. As recorded by the Russian state agency called the Rosmorrechflot, the vessels carried a total of 9.95 million tons of cargo as compared to the 5.5 million tons in the previous year.
Venta Maersk’s Trip Along the NSR
In October 2018, Venta Maersk (as owned by Maersk) had successfully finished its voyage of 37 days along the Northern Sea Route. This news had an overwhelming response since the Venta Maersk happened to be the first containership that travelled all the way up the unpredictable NSR. Earlier, it was mostly tankers and passenger ships that constituted the traffic in the NSR. So, the Danish containership was filled with 3,600 containers that consisted of South Korean electronics and Russian fish, when it started its journey hoping to commercialize a new shipping highway. The Venta Maersk belongs to an advanced ice-class of container vessels, which meant that it was built to tolerate the extreme Arctic conditions along with the addition of a stronger hull. Incidentally, the journey of the Maersk vessel was compared to that of the Russian Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) carrier called the Christophe de Margerie, back in August of this year. The vessel has created a record by crossing the NSR in just 7 days and 17 hours and by making it all the way without the help of an icebreaker.
Due to the dethawing of the Arctic, the 42,000-ton ship embarked on its trial passage to explore the future possibilities of container shipping and to collect all the relevant, scientific data needed for this research. However, the result did not resonate a positive vibe as the company decided that the trip across the Arctic region was only a one-time thing. Commenting on this trial journey, Maersk has clearly stated that the Northern Sea Route is currently not feasible enough to replace the company’s well-established, existing network as it is primarily governed by factors like the population centres, clients’ needs and the trading patterns. Not giving up hope, there is a fair chance that the NSR could become a mini Suez Canal and reduce the sea transport times from Asia to Europe, sometime in the long run.
Chances of Establishing a Major Trading Route
Previously, the NSR could only be navigated during the three months of summer. Due to the constant melting of sea ice, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US (PNAS) has predicted that a majority of vessels will be able to travel across the Arctic region without the need of an ice-breaking hull. As we are aware of, the Northern Sea Route falls entirely within the Exclusive Economic Zone of Russia and 30% of the nation’s GDP relies on the region. Hence, Russia is keen on improving its domestic shipping sector and a lot of importance is being bestowed on the nationalization of natural resource transportation through the NSR. Since it will be on Moscow’s terms, any institution or a foreign organization will have to face Russia as a big competitor if it considers trading through the Arctic Route.
Honestly, if Russia exerts its full power to make the shipping industry see the NSR as a major trading route, the Arctic Route can finally have a chance to show its potential to the world. The industry needs to declare the NSR as quite a safe, pirate-free and terror-free substitute to the old, conventional routes and gradually watch the business prosper. It will be a welcome change to the vessels that traditionally follow the paths of the Horn of Africa, the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Guinea etc.
What Does the Future Hold for NSR?
Honestly, the future is still uncertain for carrying out the full-fledged activities of the container shipping across the Northern Sea Route. The Strategic Director and founder of the Arctic Institute, Malte Humpert, had put forward his opinions in an interview in May 2017 that the chances are very slim for the NSR to become a conventional shipping route in the years to come, not by 2030 or even 2050. Quite contradictory to his previous statement, the Economist had quoted Humpert declaring that the NSR has the potential to transform into “an essential corridor” to partake in trading resources between Asia and Europe. Moreover, if the shipping industry does take a decision to utilize the Arctic Route, the Siberian coast needs to improve the infrastructure and the vessels have to discover far more innovative, eco-friendly technologies to adjust themselves to the cold climate.