The Northwest Passage versus the Northern Sea Route

Earlier this month, France’s former prime minister Michel Rocard, now French Ambassador for the Arctic and Antarctic, toured the Arctic aboard the Canadian icebreaker Amundsen. Rocard did not have high praise for his host’s capacities up north. He stated,

“I have the impression that Canada has given up on the competition to attract a large part of the traffic in 25 or 30 years.”

Rocard added that Canada is “too small” to pay for the infrastructure necessary to turn the Northwest Passage into a viable shipping route. In contrast, he believes that Russia is much more ready to make the Northern Sea Route an attractive alternative to the Suez Canal. It already has four nuclear-powered icebreakers and is building at least one more. In addition, Russia just announced that it will build nine emergency response centers along the route, stretching from the Chukchi Peninsula to the Barents Sea. Each center will cost $18.5 million and will have rescue, firefighting, and helicopter capabilities.

Dr. Alexsey Knizhnikov, an Oil and Gas Officer at the World Wildlife Foundation, said,

“Without such centres, any commercial operation in the Arctic carries great risks. These risks will be significantly reduced as soon as Russia installs a chain of such centres, stretched from Chukotka to the Barents Sea. These centres will serve to protect local people and the fragile Arctic environment.”

It’s a little bit ironic that these centers are supposed to protect the people and environment. It seems that there aren’t too many preventative measures being taken to avoid accidents; rather, Russia is putting in place emergency response capabilities for when tankers do leak oil or other toxins into the water. Regardless, it can’t be denied that the country is investing a lot of money into the North, and into the Northeast Passage specifically, whereas Canada is lagging. Russia is even building 15 new permanent observation stations and 30 automated observation posts, for a total of 70 and 33, respectively. There is even a desire to place more satellites in outer space to monitor the weather in Russia’s Arctic.

It’s not entirely true, however, that Canada is “too small” to develop the Northwest Passage. In fact, economically speaking, it has a slightly larger GDP than Russia, though it does have a lot fewer people, especially in the Arctic. Its problems stem more from geography and politics. Geographically, the Northwest Passage has several disadvantages. First of all, there isn’t one clear route through the many islands in the Canadian Archipelago, whereas the Northern Sea Route mostly follows the northern coast of Russia. Additionally, Canada has very little infrastructure near the Northwest Passage. Towns and settlements along the route, like Cambridge Bay and Resolute, are only reachable from the rest of Canada by plane. Favorably for Russia, Murmansk, an ice-free port and large city with a direct rail link to St. Petersburg, sits on the Northeast Passage. Even though the two routes are at similar latitudes a little bit south of 70°N, the Northwest Passage is generally more covered by ice than its counterpart. In Canada, recent changes in melting have not been thoroughly mapped for shipping purposes, either. Since Canada does not have the icebreakers necessary to guide ships through the treacherous passage, companies have been reluctant to transfer their shipping traffic from the Suez Canal to the Northwest Passage, despite how ferocious the Somali pirates have become.

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Asian juggernaut eyes our ‘golden’ waterways

“We are men of action. We get things done.” With those words, Ahmed Ali Al-Subaey, the Saudi-born CEO of South Korea’s largest oil company, set the tone for a conference on Arctic shipping held, significantly, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Most of the world’s cargo ships traverse the Pacific as they service the economic powerhouses of Asia. Fully 77 per cent of China’s oil imports pass through the Strait of Malacca between Malaysia and Indonesia. In Beijing, this strategic weakness is referred to as the “Malacca dilemma.”

Some of the larger vessels can’t fit into the Panama Canal and must loop around the bottom of South America. Still more loop around Africa to avoid the pirate-infested approaches to the Suez Canal. The added distances impose unwelcome costs – in fuel, salaries and foregone business.

Now, all eyes are turning toward another entrance to the Pacific: the relatively deep, wide, pirate-free Bering Strait. To the east, the Northwest Passage offers a 7,000-kilometre shortcut between Northeast Asia and the Atlantic seaboard of the United States. To the west, the Northern Sea Route offers a 10,000-kilometre shortcut to Europe.

Within the next decade, the Arctic could experience a complete late-season melt-out – and, with that, a permanent loss of the multiyear ice.

This prospect is celebrated across Asia. The Chinese media call the Northern Sea Route the “Arctic Golden Waterway.” Bin Yang of Shanghai Maritime University estimates that the route along the Russian coast could save China a staggering $60-billion to $120-billion annually.

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Something strange

Commercial shipping through the Northeast Passage over the last couple weeks has reported the seas bubbling as if they were boiling.  Their observations have been reported to the science ministry who have sent scientists to investigate.

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The ice opens the way

Wherever ice disappears, new ways open up for people to move in and through the Arctic. This summer, for instance, both the Northwest Passage and the maritime route north of Russia are ice-free. As the scientists are aware, this is a situation that raises interest: Now there are totally new opportunities for making commercial use of the Arctic, says Gerdes. He sees potential for changes in particular in maritime shipping, the tourism sector, fishery and in the exploitation of resources. Of course, the decline in ice also enables access to resources that were previous inaccessible not only on the seafloor, but also on shore since shipping routes are now available for transporting resources away, explains the sea ice expert.
Gerdes and his colleagues already note a certain optimistic mood in the economy. Gerdes: Our work is very much in demand and its noticeable that interest in sea ice forecasts is now also emerging in sectors with which we dont associate this at all. Economists or fishery biologists suddenly want to know from us how sea ice will change.
The climate researchers are therefore joining forces with 26 partners from nine European countries in the new project ACCESS: Arctic Climate Change, Economy and Society. Divided into five working groups, the researchers want to find answers to the following three key questions: What will transportation, tourism, fishery and resource exploitation in the Arctic be like in the future? What risks do these developments hold for nature and humanity and by means of which regulations can these risks be minimised?

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First supertanker through the Northeast Passage

On August 30, the Russian Nuclear Corporation Rosatom reported that the tanker Vladimir Tikhonov – a suezmax with a deadweight of 162,000 tonnes that is owned by the Russian shipping company Sovcomflot – set a speed record completing its voyage along the passage in just under eight days.

It was escorted by two nuclear icebreakers, the Fifty Years of Victory and Yamal.

The Vladimir Tikhonov is the largest tanker to have moved along this route, Rosatom said. It is now on its way to a port in Thailand, carrying over 120,000 tonnes of gas condensate in its holds.

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Arctic Shipping Summit 2012

the 8th annual Arctic and cold climate shipping conference and seminar – dates to be confirmed

The premier industry Arctic Shipping event focussing on the strategic, operational and technical challenges of ice and cold climate shipping

 The 7th Annual Arctic Shipping Summit took place in Helsinki from 12-14 April 2011. The leading event of the year for industry professionals involved in Arctic and cold climate shipping saw highly qualified experts in Arctic Shipping from a diverse background assemble to discuss and analyse critical developments and practical challenges. 

As activity increases in the Arctic, including on the Northern Sea Route, off Greenland and in the Barents Sea, participants had the opportunity to hear about:

• Strategic concerns, security and sovereignty in the Arctic with high-level contributions from Arctic countries
• Developments in transport and exploration in Russian Arctic, North America and Greenland, including real-life case studies from voyages in 2010 and offshore drilling experience
• The impact of climate change on potential navigation conditions
• Challenges of ice management operations for offshore vessels
• Technical challenges for design of ice-going ships and icebreakers
• Stakeholder discussion on current status of training for ice-going crew


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