Arctic Maritime Connections

The twenty-first century maritime Arctic is experiencing extraordinary change. Profound climate change and globalization, and the connection of Arctic natural resources to world markets are shaping new opportunities for the global shipping enterprise in this once remote region. The Arctic Ocean’s sea ice cover, responding to regional and global warming, has been dramatically changing in ice extent, thickness, and character during more than four decades. In turn, these physical changes in sea ice provide for greater marine access and potentially longer seasons of navigation throughout the Arctic Ocean.

Yet these changes should not be exaggerated. In fact, the Arctic Ocean will remain fully or partially ice-covered for up to seven to eight months each year in the decades ahead. The Arctic Ocean will never be ice-free year-round but may be entirely ice-free for periods of time in future summers. The presence of sea ice and the likelihood that Arctic marine routes will be open only seasonally limits the potential for year-round, trans-Arctic navigation. Icebreaker escorts of ice class commercial ships can extend the Arctic navigation season in some areas, such as along Russia’s Northern Sea Route (NSR), but full trans-Arctic routes will remain limited except perhaps during the summer months. These routes are not economically attractive to the largest, global container shippers with time sensitive cargoes. There will likely be niche seasonal markets, but such ocean-to-ocean Arctic voyages will not become direct competitors to the main global marine trade routes through the Suez and Panama canals. Russian experts have suggested that the NSR could become a seasonal supplement to the southern Suez Canal marine route. But a majority of future traffic will surely be “destinational,” meaning that ships will carry cargo out of the Arctic to global markets.

If not sea ice retreat, then what is the primary driver of future Arctic marine operations and shipping? The Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), an influential study released by the Arctic Council in April 2009, developed a set of scenarios, or plausible futures, to identify the key uncertainties and factors influencing the future of Arctic navigation. The complexity and range of potentially important factors include: global oil prices, climate change severity, new Arctic resource discoveries, legal and governance stability, conflicts with indigenous marine users, the seasonality of marine operations, new global actors in the Arctic (such as China, Korea, and Japan), new international agreements on Arctic marine safety and environmental protection, and others. The AMSA provides strong evidence that future Arctic marine operations and shipping are driven principally by Arctic natural resource developments which are, not surprisingly, highly coupled to global commodities prices and markets. The majority of future Arctic commercial ships will likely be bulk carriers, oil tankers, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) carriers. With cargoes of oil, gas, hard minerals, fish, and plausibly fresh water, most of these voyages will be destinational.

Russia’s NSR is the most visible symbol of a marine transportation system driven by Arctic natural resource developments. Defined in Russian federal law from Kara Gate in the west to the Bering Strait, the NSR is a national waterway, a marine transportation corridor in the Russian Arctic along the top of Eurasia, and an integral component of Russia’s northern economic strategy. Not only does the NSR facilitate the movement of natural resources out of the Arctic to global markets, but it also provides marine access to all regions of the Russian Arctic for effective sovereign presence, law enforcement, security, and supply to coastal communities.

The large and well-known Russian icebreaker fleet, made up of nuclear and non-nuclear icebreakers, maintains this coastal Arctic marine access and is available to escort convoys of commercial ships which can extend the navigation season along the route. Since 1979, year-round navigation on the western NSR has been maintained to Dudinka, a port on the Yenisey River that services the industrial complex at Norilsk, the world’s largest producer of nickel and palladium. Today, independently operated ice class container carriers, which do not use convoy icebreakers, move nickel plates westward to Russian and European markets on a year-round basis. During the summer navigation season, these container ships sail east to Asian ports in the Pacific.

The most significant development in the Russian North today is the construction of an LNG plant and port (named Sabetta) on the western shore of the Ob Bay on the Yamal Peninsula. This new complex will be supplied with gas from fields on the Yamal Peninsula and liquefied gas will be carried by ship out of the Russian Arctic to world markets. An initial fleet of fifteen icebreaking LNG carriers (both Russian and foreign-flag), all being built in Korea’s Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering yard, will operate out of Sabetta. Capable of carrying 170,000 cubic meters of liquefied gas, these large ships will sail westbound and year-round on voyages to northwest Russia and European ports. During the summer months, these ships will sail into the Pacific and to Asian markets. The length of the navigation season for eastbound voyages has yet to be determined and will depend on the availability of Russian icebreakers. The first ship of this class, the Christophe de Margerie, has been undergoing ice trials in the Russian Arctic.

The geoeconomic context for Arctic shipping and the NSR is quite clear for the next few decades. The NSR is a national Arctic waterway that facilitates the movement of Russian Arctic natural resources to trade partners and markets throughout Eurasia. However, the NSR is not likely to compete with rail across the continent, or with more southern routes developed by China linking Indian Ocean and Mediterranean ports, as a future maritime corridor to Europe for exports. Future increases in global commodities prices will plausibly lead to greater exploration of the Arctic’s, and specifically, Russia’s, natural resources. Many of these future resources will surely be carried by sea out of the Arctic to distant markets. Profound changes are happening in the Arctic Ocean, especially the increases in marine access from sea ice retreat, but these changes do not foretell a retooling of global maritime trade routes as many speculate.

Dr. Lawson W. Brigham is a Distinguished Fellow and Faculty at the International Arctic Research Center of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is also a Fellow at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s Center for Arctic Study & Policy.

This essay is part of our Big Questions series.