“No, there are no penguins in the Arctic.” The confusion about the polar regions is still not settled in the popular mind, while on the other hand serious business interests start to come into play in one of the globe’s most fragile ecosystems. With climate change advancing at a pace never experienced before, the sea ice covering the Arctic Ocean is increasingly retreating. This clears the Northeast Passage for commercial shipping, a sea route that has the potential to change world trade and international security.
The worldwide trade is amounting to quantities, that could not be imagined a few decades before in an ideologically and politically split world. Especially, the exchange in goods between Eastern Asia and Europe makes up a large bulk of commercial shipping. The most common route is, despite the danger of piracy and enormous fees, the way through the Suez Canal. The voyage from the Chinese port Dailian to Rotterdam, for instance, takes 48 days this way and costs some tens of millions euro for the shipping company.
With climate change becoming more and more an integral part of world reality and hence the sea ice decreasing yearly by multiple the size of the BeNeLux countries this is changing however. Some scientists, including from the renown Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), describe the possibility of an ice-free northern pole in summer within the next one hundred years. This trend has attracted the attention of businessmen, ship builders and logisticians alike.
The Northeast Passage, also called Northern Sea Route, stretches from the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska in the east to the northern shore of Norway in the West. Last year in 2013 some 19,000 ships navigated the Suez Canal, compared to only 46 passing through these Northern waters. Because of these figures most politicians and businessmen give the Arctic Northern Sea Route only marginal importance. Other numbers, however, create a different picture. Commercial ships can save 6000km in voyage, which translates into a saving of 13 days and up to 500,000 euros. Recently Russia has announced plans to invest into a better infrastructure along the coast and to not charge fees comparable to the Suez Canal. The freight ship Yong Shen from the Chinese Cosco-group was last year the first to navigate the route without the help of an icebreaker.
Commercial ships can save 6000 kilometres in voyage and more than 13 days.
Yes, the dangers of harsh weather conditions and bad maps and infrastructure are substantial. However, some pioneers in shipping have proven the potential of the route along the Siberian shore. Thus it remains crucial to keep a watchful eye on the developments in the Arctic and Russian policy. Not last for environmental reasons , as one of the most vulnerable areas of the world, where any accident equals a disaster, would change dramatically due to increased ship traffic.