Shipping through Russian Arctic has quadrupled in past year

Will Oremus

For years people have been speculating that the melting of Arctic sea ice due to climate change would open new shipping lanes. In fact, it's happening now.

The Financial Times reports that, as of last week, 204 ships had received permits this year to ply the Northern Sea Route, which connects East Asia to Europe via the waters off of Russia's northern coast. Last year, just 46 vessels made the trip. Two years ago, the number was four.

For now, the route remains more treacherous than the traditional Asia-Europe passage via the Suez Canal. But as Arctic sea ice continues to recede, it will become increasingly viable during the summer months -- especially since it's a much shorter route. The captain of a Russian icebreaker fleet told the Financial Times that the trip from Kobe or Busan to Rotterdam should be 23 days via the northern passage versus 33 days via the canal. And recent studies suggest that the long-sought Northwest Passage off of Canada's north coast is likely to open for business in the decades to come as well.

Those looking for upsides to global climate change might count this as one -- if they're fans of Russia, the country best-positioned to capitalize. As Climate Central's Andrew Freedman recently pointed out, the United States is essentially helpless in the Arctic, with zero Navy surface ships capable of navigating the icy waters and the Senate unwilling to ratify the U.N. convention that facilitates diplomacy in the region. That's a big concern, given that the new shipping routes come with dangers ranging from lost lives to environmentally disastrous spills to territorial disputes.


By Will Oremus