The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the global average and as the ice disappears the Arctic Ocean is becoming more navigable. Previously inhospitable areas will see a lot more traffic from shipping, fishing, and tourism.
Tourism is on the rise in the Arctic. The number of nights spent by visitors to the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard north of Norway has risen more than 300 percent between 1993 and 2013.
There is already a Canadian cruise ship that is preparing to travel the Northwest Passage in 2016. The cruise ship Crystal Serenity belongs to Crystal Cruises, escorted by an icebreaker, it will travel from Anchorage to New York in 2016.
As the water warms a number of fish species are moving into Arctic waters. Countries are already harvesting hundreds of thousands of tons of mackerel cod, haddock, herring, blue whiting and other species
Russia has had its sights set on exploiting the Arctic’s riches for more than a decade and that country already has 16 deep-water ports along its Arctic coastline. Russia is well positioned because the Ice conditions in the Northwest passage remain very hard to navigate while the Northern Sea Route (just off of Russian shores) is far better.
Some experts have estimated that by 2030 shipping in the Arctic could account for a quarter of the cargo traffic between Europe and Asia. One 2012 study suggested we will see a radical increase in trans-Arctic shipping routes linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.
China is another example of a country looking for ways of expediting the flow of goods by ships. The Chinese media refer to the Northern Sea Route as the ‘Arctic Golden Waterway,’ Professor Bin Yang of Shanghai Maritime University estimates the route could save China between $60 billion and $120 billion per year.
Navigation of the Northwest Passage is not new but it is the most perilous shipping route in the world. However, as the ice on the Arctic sea continues to melt, shipping traffic may soon explode even along the Northwest Passage. It was first navigated between 1903 and 1906 by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. In 1969 the Canadian ice breaking oil tanker, the S.S. Manhattan also traversed the passage.
With declining levels of ice vast swaths of the Arctic Ocean are now being used as a shipping route. As early as 2030 the area may be completely ice-free in the summer and as a consequence it will be open to shipping traffic. According to one study ships without ice-breaking hulls will soon be able to cross previously inaccessible parts of the Arctic Ocean.
There are powerful market forces driving interest in Arctic shipping. Taking a northern course offers dramatic reductions in the distance traveled and therefore the amount of time for each journey. These faster ways of going from east to west could reduce travel time by as much as 40 percent compared with shipments that go by the Suez Canal. This significantly reduces the cost of fuel and salaries. Going north cuts the shipping distance from Asia to Europe by at least 1,000 nautical miles. This translates to between four days and two weeks less travel time when compared to the duration of a trip that goes south through the Panama Canal.
Currently the Northern Sea Route is far easier to navigate than the Northwest Passage which is full of islands and fjords. 2010 The Nordic Orion was the first non-Russian company to use this Sea Route when it shipped iron ore from Norway to China. In 2012 Nordic Orion’s sister ship, the Nordic Odyssey, used the route to ship iron ore from Russia to China. These ships are owned by a Danish company called Nordic Bulk Carriers which is establishing itself as a pioneer in Arctic shipping. They estimated that each trip saves them more than $400,000 on fuel alone.
In August 2012 a Chinese vessel was the first container transporting freighter to transit the route in a journey that took two weeks less than the usual one through the Suez Canal. In November 2012 Russian gas export company Gazprom made the first delivery of liquefied natural gas through the Northeast Passage, sailing from Norway east to Japan.
In September 2013, the same week that the UN’s IPCC released its fifth assessment report, the Nordic Orion transported a cargo of coal across the Northwest Passage became the first bulk carrier to traverse that route. The Nordic Orion traveled with a Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker.
All together, in 2013 and 2014 there were almost 150 cargo ships that traversed the Arctic north of Russia.
Arctic shipping is associated with a wide range of potential dangers and a host of environmental concerns and risk.
In recent years there have been some daunting reminders of the dangers of shipping in ice infested waters. In 2007, the supposedly robust and capable ice-strengthened MS Explorer sank during an Antarctic voyage. Another problem associated with Arctic shipping is ice coagulation on the top portion of vessels that can cause them to tip over. Even “icing,” which occurs when ocean spray freezes onto the superstructure of a ship, can cause it to become top-heavy and capsize.
Due to shorter voyages, shipping in the Arctic reduces emissions compared to a longer trip. However, some have expressed concern that there is no net benefit and there may even be a greater environmental cost. “Emissions of soot from heavy oil in the Arctic climate eliminates the benefits of choosing a shorter route,” said Sigurd Enge, Bellona’s senior advisor on Arctic affairs. “Problems of soot in Arctic waters have a proven effect on the accelerated melting [of the Polar Icecap]. Chosing shorter routes is therefore solely for profit at the expense of the environment and the climate. This form of risk transfer is the last thing the Arctic needs now.”
Another concern associated with Arctic shipping activity is that there is no environmental and safety infrastructure in Canada’s North. Single hull boats could easily rupture spilling their cargo and bunker fuel into the water. “These waters are highly risky to operate in,” said Enge. “If such a ship wrecks in these waters , we have neither equipment nor emergency infrastructure to clean up or conduct rescue operations.”
Opening the Arctic will also bring a range of invasive species including harmful pests like mosquitoes, forest beetles, mussels and barnacles. These new species can damage local ecosystems and threaten native plants and animals.
While some are greedily looking at the Arctic as the new economic frontier,” Achim Steiner, head of the U.N. Environment Program does not share this optimistic view. “I would caution against the hypothetical bonanza that some people see,” he said.