“With increased shipping and marine traffic comes risk of vessel groundings, spills, collisions, pollutants, noise disturbances and invasive species,” said the 2012 report from the Alaska Legislature’s Northern Waters Task Force. “This risk is particularly high due to lack of detailed navigational charts, reliable weather forecasting, vessel traffic separation protocols, and search and rescue infrastructure.”
While the ice melt has been profound, the main force behind development of the northern sea route is global energy economics, said Lawson Brigham, a polar shipping expert and University of Alaska Fairbanks professor.
“What’s driving this traffic is natural resource development in Russia and northern Norway,” said Brigham, a former icebreaker captain. “Those cargoes are carried across the top of Eurasia to China, other countries in East Asia. But the primary client is China.”
The shale gas revolution in the United States also is playing a key role in the development of Arctic shipping from Europe to Asia. European natural gas-export projects, such as Norway’s Snow White facility in Hammerfest, originally were built for the American market.
“But by the time we were able to finish the factory, there was no American market,” said Borten Moe, the Norwegian oil minister.
The U.S. no longer needs imported natural gas because of its domestic shale bonanza. But Asian demand is high, and the northern sea route is a quicker way to the Far East.
Another factor in developing Arctic shipping is the search for energy sources in Asia other than nuclear power, in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. The recently completed first liquefied natural-gas shipment across the trans-Arctic route went from Hammerfest in Norway’s north to Japan.
The Arctic shortcut between Europe and Asia saves fuel costs and is free of the piracy that plagues shipping elsewhere. But Arctic navigation has challenges and costs, not least of which are expensive ice-breaking escorts for at least part of the passage.
“There were 46 vessels that went through the northern sea route and 18,000 vessels that go through the Suez Canal, so we’ve got a ways to go,” polar shipping expert Brigham said. “But the potential is absolutely there, because natural resources are crucial to Russia’s economy, and here is a way to use this route to move the resources to world markets.”