In the summer of 2009, two ships operated by Germany’s Beluga Shipping traveled from Ulsan, South Korea to Yamburg in Siberia. The points of arrival and departure aren’t exceptional, but the route was: the ships became the first toever travel that distance through the Northeast Passage over Russia.
With rising global temperatures melting ice in the Arctic, the Northeast Passage can be expected to become more easily traversable. If the passage is opened further to shipping, vessels moving between East Asia and Western Europe could save as much as 10 days and more than 5,600 kilometers.
The opening up of the passage, while an opportunity, is ominous in its apparent origins. Until recent years, the passage had been covered by thick ice all year round. But global warming is believed by many to be causing the ice coverage to shrink in the area.
Indeed, ice recession has been faster than expected and scientists are struggling to keep up with the unprecedented changes. “The mathematical models being used have been shown to be too conservative. The reality is moving faster than what science has been able to predict,” says Lars-Otto Reiersen, executive secretary of the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP).
“In particular, the models haven’t been able to keep pace with the rapid change we have seen in the past 5 to 10 years.”
The Northeast Passage first opened in 2005, which was something of a turning point for observed temperatures and ice coverage in the region. Satellite images of the area show significant ice loss in recent years. While those images can’t accurately convey ice thickness, observers expect that there has been a corresponding decline in the strength of the ice remaining in the area.
“It isn’t a linear decrease, but an accelerated decrease,” Jan-Gunnar Winther, Director Norwegian Polar Institute said in an interview. “That’s why many scientists, including myself, take the view that we can’t rule out that before the middle of the century, even within 20 or 30 years, we could have a situation where during summer the Arctic Ocean is maneuverable, navigable and nearly ice-free.”
This all means that the coldest and most forbidding part of the world is now easier to access. And there’s expected to be competition for control of the area and its resources. The Northeast Passage is believed to be home to fossil fuels, minerals and fish. In a world where these are in many cases getting scarcer, the Arctic is likely to see plenty of competition for its newly uncovered spoils.
These opportunities for commerce haven’t gone unnoticed. Commercial shipping is increasing in the area and oil companies are seeking drilling rights. Exxon signed a major deal in August 2011 to drill for oil in the area.
One month after that deal was signed, inSeptember 2011, then-Russian Prime Minister and current President Vladimir Putin pledged to turn the Northeast passage into a key shipping route and bolster Russia’s presence through infrastructure developments.
This raises questions about who has the right to operate in and extract resources from the area. There are also questions of who sets the rules in the Arctic, who enforces them and what is to be done if those rules are broken.
There are five Arctic coastal states: the U.S., Russia, Canada, Norway and Denmark/Greenland. All have agreed to abide by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which grants control of 200 nautical miles off a country’s coast. Settlement of disputes will likely be handled by the International Maritime Organization.
There are also questions of safety concerning ships operating in anunfamiliar and remote area. A changing climate further complicates conditions in the area: it will become more difficult to gather important information about routes, weather and water depth.
As ice melts, it breaks apart and moves around more easily, creating potential obstacles for ships. “The ice will shift according to the weather – not just the climate, but the weather at any given time. If you in the future have an Arctic Ocean with little sea ice, it will require up-to-date satellite information in order for ship captains to be sure they are operating in open water,” Winther says.
If one of those ships has an accident, the effects could be serious, especially if the ship is carrying fossil fuels. After all, there’s relatively little in the way of search and rescue capacity, and the Arctic is pitch dark for much of the year. Russia has said it plans to invest in helicopters and planes and icebreakers that can be used to escort ships.
Complicating this is the fact that there’s no known effective way of cleaning up an oil spill in icy waters. The least bad way of dealing with a spill is to burn off the oil, which causes a significant output of carbon dioxide, but removes some of the poisonous chemicals from the water.
Despite the Arctic’s inhospitable climate, there are about 4 million people living there. The area’s development could, if undertaken in a sustainable manner, bring improvements to their lives. But there’s also the risk of increased pollution, while the disruption could adversely affect quality of life for those who live along the Arctic coast.
Thirty-four ships passed through the area in 2011. In the big picture of the global shipping industry, this is a tiny number, though more are expected this year. Warm summer weather is approaching and more vessels can be expected to make the trip in the coming months. What this could lead to, though, will in large part depend on how the five Arctic coastal states manage things.
Steven Borowiec is a South Korea-based writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Toronto Star and Asia Sentinel, among other publications.