Polar Shipping Routes

Polar Shipping Routes

Note: Ice extent is the average from the 1981-2010 period. Since then, the average ice extent has receded.

Global climate change is offering new opportunities for international transportation networks, notably with a trend of receding ice around the North Pole. If this trend continues, parts of the Arctic could be used more reliably for navigation, at least during summer months and for longer periods of time. The main trans-Arctic routes include:

  • The Northern Sea Route (NSR) along the arctic coast of Russia. This is the maritime route that is likely to be free of ice first and thus represents the highest commercial potential. It would reduce a maritime journey between East Asia and Western Europe from 21,000 km using the Suez Canal to 12,800 km, cutting transit time by 10-15 days. During the Soviet Era, the NSR was used to resupply military and resource extraction along the Soviet Arctic. Still, this traffic dropped in the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is only in the late 2000s that interest and traffic picked up. In 2009, two German ships, Beluga Fraternity and Beluga Foresight, completed with a Russian icebreaker escort the first commercial journey across the Northern Sea Route (or Northeast Passage) linking Busan to Rotterdam with several stopovers. Other shipping lines have also run trials, but these trials did not show much commercial potential. The 3,600 TEU ships Venta Maersk used this route in 2018, representing the first trial inter-range container service. In 2024, the first Panamax containership crossed the route without an icebreaker escort.
  • The Northwest Passage (NWP) crossing Canada’s Arctic Ocean could reduce the maritime journey between East Asia and Western Europe by about 13,600 km using the Northwest Passage while taking 24,000 km using the Panama Canal. In 2007 the Northwest Passage was open during the summer months for the first time in recorded history, but it remains to be seen how stable this opening is.
  • The Transpolar Sea Route (TSR) would use the central part of the Arctic to directly link the Strait of Bering and the Atlantic Ocean of Murmansk. This route is hypothetical as it involves ice-free conditions that are not yet observed.
  • The Arctic Bridge linking the Russian port of Murmansk or the Norwegian port of Narvik to the Canadian port of Churchill could be used, mostly for the grain trade. Although this is not a trans-Arctic route per se, it is designed to connect two hinterlands (Northwest Europe and the North American Midwest) through the Arctic.

The consideration of arctic routes for commercial navigation purposes has been the subject of much hype and unrealistic expectations. It remains a very speculative endeavor, mainly for four reasons:

  • First, it is uncertain to what extent the receding perennial ice cover is a confirmed trend or simply part of a long term climatic cycle. It is also difficult to predict annual variations in the ice cover, underlining unstable navigation conditions. Even if the Arctic routes became regularly open during the summer, the Arctic would remain closed to commercial navigation during the winter months (unless there are dramatic shifts in weather patterns). As of 2010, the ice-free conditions of most Arctic shipping routes were only for about 30 days. There is uncertainty in terms of the seasonal shipping window, making the planning of voyages uncertain. Since maritime shipping companies are looking for regular and consistent services, this seasonality has limited commercial appeal. There are uncertain economic gains from shorter Arctic shipping routes.
  • Second, there is very limited economic activity around the Arctic Circle, implying that shipping services crossing the Arctic have almost no opportunity to drop and pick-up cargo as they pass through. Thus, unlike other long-distance commercial shipping routes, there is limited revenue generation potential for shipping lines along the Arctic route, which forbids the emergence of transshipment hubs. Shipping in the arctic is suitable for point to point services linking directly a source port and a destination port. This value proposition could improve if resources (oil and mining) around the Arctic are extracted in greater quantities, which would favor bulk shipping. This would mostly take place along the Siberian coast.
  • The Arctic remains a frontier in terms of weather forecast, charting, and building a navigation system, implying uncertainties and unreliability for navigation. Thus, climatic change may impose an additional risk to navigation around the arctic. The decrease in sea ice extent and its smaller volume are linked with the growing mobility of summer sea ice as well as more coastal erosion. Substantial efforts have to be made to ensure that navigation can take place in a safe manner along well-defined and patrolled navigation routes. The bathymetry in the Arctic is usually shallow, which is limiting the size of the ships that could be operated in these waters. Ships also need to be certified to operate in arctic conditions, which increases costs and undermines the economic benefits of the route. Circulation requires to take place as a convoy spearheaded by an ice breaker, which is subject to additional costs. Insurance rates are also much higher to take care of the involved risks, which are not clear to assess.
  • The setting of rail corridors between China and Europe across Central Asia (the Eurasian landbridge, also known as the Belt and Road initiative) is offering an option that is more stable and time performing than the Arctic routes.

In view of all of the above maritime shipping companies are not yet considering seriously the commercial potential of the Arctic as a navigation shortcut. Still, the rise in bunker fuel prices and slow steaming practices can be considered incentives for the development of niche services that could use the Arctic as a shortcut between major markets of the northern hemisphere. By doing so, shipping services would have the option to mitigate the distance advantage of the shorter Arctic routes with the option of slower speeds and their fuel consumption benefits. Polar routes remain a niche market that has potential, but the nature and extent of this market remain unclear. In 2021, several shipping lines, including MSC, underlined that they do not seek to use artic routes in the future, mainly for environmental reasons.