There is much interest and excitement about shipping via the Arctic Circle on the Northern Sea Route (NSR) as the Polar ice cap recedes due to global warming. Indeed not only is a Cosco multipurpose vessel making the voyage from China but the IMO secretary-general Koji Sekimizu is setting out to find out firsthand about the route on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. The Russians have also granted an unprecedented 346 permits for the NSR this year.
The idea of commercial shipping using the NSR as alternative, and shorter, route between Europe and Asia is by no means new though. I remember first reporting on it back in the late 1990’s when Japanese philanthropic organisation, and shipping industry benefactor, the Nippon Foundation, was pushing the idea as an alternative route Europe to the then pirate infested waters of the Malacca Straits.
The receding of the summer ice in the Arctic regions has made it a potentially more viable idea than it was back in the late 1990’s. However, despite the hype it still faces a vast number of challenges as a major shipping route.
For a start the NSR is still not completely ice free even in summer, this means specialised vessels. It also effectively limits it to being a seasonal passage limited to individual voyages, so it is certainly not suited to the modern container shipping schedule for example.
It is an incredibly isolated part of the world and there are stretches of thousands of miles with no port or maritime infrastructure. That is not an issue per se, ships cross the Pacific Ocean every day, but what would happen if there was an accident in this area of key environmental importance? It could potentially take days just to reach the casualty by which time the damage could be catastrophic. It does not take too much imagination to think of the headlines a tanker spill in the Arctic would create.
Lastly while a growth in transit permits for the NSR from 46 in 2012 to 346 may sound very impressive in isolation it is a veritable drop in the ocean compared to the 80,000 or so vessel transits of that key Asia – Europe choke point the Malacca Strait on an annual basis.
There would need to be huge investment in infrastructure in extremely remote parts of the world to make it a viable large-scale shipping route. It may well attract a certain volume of niche summer time traffic between certain North Asian and North European destinations, but it is still extremely far from becoming the next Malacca Straits.