The Silk Road of the 21st Century

Since around 114 BC, the Silk Road has revolutionized trade between Europe and East-Asia. Now, a new route is emerging that can transform global shipping as we know it today. That new route, the Northern Sea Route, passes from the edge of Alaska to the top of Scandinavia along Russia’s barren Siberian coastline and could be up to 2 weeks faster than the mainstream Suez Canal Passage.

Climate change is a growing global concern that affects every aspect of life as we know it, and shipping is no exception.

Maritime transit through the Arctic is now possible between July and October due to the rapid retreat of Arctic sea ice because of climate change, a trend that is magnified at the North and South poles. ­China, Russia, and other commercial shipping interests are hoping that the worsening state of the Arctic sea ice could become a more efficient alternative to Egypt’s Suez Canal, shorten transit times by weeks, and even cut fuel costs for the many shipping vessels traveling between ports in Europe, Asia, and even the Americas.

The Russian company Rosatom, which proudly runs the world’s largest nuclear-powered ice-breaking fleet vaunts that the route has “no queues and no pirates,” both being lingering problems of the old Suez Canal route, with the African buccaneers in the Gulf of Aden becoming a larger threat in recent years. As Russian Defense minister declared last month, “The Arctic has turned into an object of territorial, resource, and military-strategic interest for a number of states,” alluding to the rising tensions over Russia and its competitors over who controls what territory and where.

During the Cold War, the Arctic was used as a “chessboard” for dueling navies and submarine war games. Now, the next fight will be more mercantile.

The expansion of the route is expected to drastically decrease times for sea transit between Europe and Asia. The expansion comes thanks to the melting ice caps, allowing vessels to make the journey without ice breakers. According to some estimates, the melting of ice in the Arctic is so grave that the Northern Passage could become an economically viable shipping route.

The route’s number one selling point is time. A ship sailing from South Korea to Germany via South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope would take on average 46 days, the same voyage via the Suez Canal would be 34 days, and the trip via the Northern Sea Route would take 23 days, according to searoutes.com. Those numbers are staggering; this breakthrough could potentially cut some vessels’ voyages in half. The Northern Sea Route has the potential to save shipping companies across the globe millions in fuel and other costs.

The Canadian trade minister Jim Carr said that the route “will in a matter of a generation, probably be available year-round”. Over the summer, Maersk sent a container vessel through the newly-expanded Northern Sea Route, the Arctic trade passage in Russia’s exclusive economic zone.  While the Maersk voyage was simply a test, the route is very promising.

The way things stand now, the Northern Sea Route is free of ice earlier and for longer than other areas of the Arctic Ocean because of its path along the shallow seas of Siberia.

Here, a time-lapse satellite image shows the extent of summer ice shrinking — by about 13.4 percent per decade according to NASA.

In the future, according to senior research scientist Walt Meier at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, climate models suggest the Arctic could be seeing ice-free summers sometime between 2050 and 2070, with some models proposing quicker melting, even as soon as 2030.

As ice sheets continue to break, new channels for sea-based transport and travel will continue to open up, clearing new paths that have never been possible to take before. In the Arctic, this means shorter distances and shipping times between global ports. Quicker transit times means a greater volume of goods can be shipped in a set amount of time.

Journeys transporting goods from Europe to Asia or the Eastern US could be sailing thousands of miles less each trip that currently passes through the Panama Canal or the Suez Canal. Tim Keane, manager of Arctic operations of Canadian shipping company Fednav, says, “From a distance point of view it makes tremendous sense to use the Northwest Passage when its available to you”.

Due to the significant ice melting around the North Pole caused by global warming, sea levels across the world are rising, costal erosion is worsening, and sedimentation patterns are changing. These fluctuations are putting some existing trade routes in jeopardy, as those routes are no longer as safe or easy to navigate as before. This leads to significant re-routing of shipping routes, and there’s one specifically that could be getting a lot of attention in the coming years.

The discovery of the Northern Sea Passage is proving to be a very intriguing option for many vessels making trips between ports in the Americas, Asia, and Europe.

Unfortunately, according to Malte Humpert, founder of the Arctic Institute, the environment of the Northern Sea remains very unpredictable. Just this August, a passenger ship ran aground in the Canadian Arctic and its passengers needed to be evacuated. Also, according to the Barents Observer, ice still blocked the Gulf of Ob in Russia in June, paralyzing shipping in the area.

Andrey Todorov, an expert in Arctic issues at the Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, warns that the future melting of the coming years will not necessarily help the shipping industry. “Even if the ice continues to recede, it doesn’t mean that conditions will become easier for commercial vessels. There will be an even higher risk that huge floating pieces of ice could break from the pack ice and collide,” he said. “Reinforcing vessels for ice conditions costs a lot.”

Environmentalists are also concerned of the possible increase in shipping in the Arctic. More specifically they are worried about the possibility of spills from oil and gas tankers as these ships operate in the extreme icy conditions of the north, especially during winter. Cold-water spills, like the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound in 1989, take decades to contain and clean.

The development of ports and use of fossil fuels in the Arctic region also raises increasing pollutions concerns. The worst part for the Arctic ice — the “black carbon” emitted by ships and ports — is when the black, sooty pollution spreads across the ice. This leads to the quickened melting of the ice, as the dark surface absorbs the sun’s heat, rather than reflecting it.

Before the Arctic exhibited a breakthrough trade route, the region was solely occupied by local populations, explorers, and scientists. Now, its seen as a resource abundant field with profitable waterways, with the United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway, and Russia asserting rights, while China and other countries are rushing to fish, drill, and traverse the international waters. The U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command Chief, Admiral Harry Harris, said, “Of particular note are Russian efforts to build presence and influence in the High North. Russia has more bases north of the Arctic Circle than all other countries combined, and is building more with distinctly military capabilities.”

Russia is all in on the opening of the Northern Sea Passage; the country recently opened the new $27 billion Yamal natural gas production facility above the Arctic Circle. Since most of the route passes through the waters along Russia’s exclusive economic zone, vessels seeking passage must apply for permission and permits from Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration. Here, Russians are already taking advantage of the coming rich opportunities of the Arctic by charging fees for navigation and ice-breaking assistance.

Just this past summer, hundreds of smaller ships, oil tankers, cargo ships, research vessels, and even some cruise ships are journeying through the icy waters of the Northern Sea.

Will the Arctic Ocean become a sort of “global commons” or a hot spot of international conflict tension? Only time will tell, but what the global shipping community can agree on is that this new passage will lead to an interesting future.

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