Are the northern sea routes really the shortest?
Maybe a too rose-coloured picture of a blue Arctic Ocean
Is the world trade soon going to use routes through the Arctic for large amounts of transit shipping?
No, that is much too early, says senior researcher Svend Aage Christensen in a new DIIS Brief. Reading the headlines, it is easy to get the impression that the Arctic Ocean will soon be ice-free, but what grabs the headlines is the few weeks at the end of August and the beginning of September where new opportunities are developing. However, a few weeks’ reduction of the ice cover will not lead to a massive reorientation of the global transit routes. Supposing that large scale Arctic transit becomes physically possible some day, it still has to be economically viable as well.
However, the purpose of the attached brief is not to discuss climate issues, but to deal with the more mundane questions of the distances involved on the northern sea routes as well as the alternative southern sea routes and the expectations of the shipping companies. The brief was inspired by professor Frédéric Lasserre’s presentation at a conference in Reykjavik in January 2009.
|As of the first week of September 2008, Arctic sea ice extent had not fallen below the record low observed in 2007, but the season set a new kind of record. For the first time in probably half a century - and definitely since satellite observations began about three decades ago - sea ice retreated enough to create open (not ice-free) waters all the way around the northern ice pack. Open water is defined by the World Meteorological Organization for the purposes of navigation as areas where the ice covers less than one-tenth of the surface. See maps and description below.|
|Arctic sea ice concentration on September 8, 2008. Image Credit: NASA/Jesse Allen, using data obtained courtesy of the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). Text Credit for image description: Rebecca Lindsey, NASA’s Earth Observatory|
|The above image shows Arctic sea ice concentration on September 8, 2008, as observed by the Advanced Microwave Scanning Radiometer–Earth Observing System (AMSR-E) sensor on NASA’s Aqua satellite. The observations are collected on a pixel by pixel basis over the Arctic. The percentage of a 12.5-square-kilometer pixel covered by ice is shown in shades of dark blue (no ice) to white (100 percent ice). The gray line around the Arctic basin shows the median minimum extent of sea ice from 1979-2000. (The median of a data set is the middle value if you arrange the numbers in order from smallest to largest.)
The southern portions of the Northwest Passage through the Arctic (the western route from Europe to Asia through the islands of northern Canada) opened in early August. Then in early September, ice scientists confirmed that the waters around the Russian coastline—the Northern Sea Route— were navigable, but still treacherous, with shifting floes of thick, multi-year ice, that could coalesce rapidly. The image shows that the widest avenue through the Northwest Passage, Parry Channel, still harbored some ice, but the more circuitous, southern waterways were clear. On the other side of the Arctic Ocean, the passage around Russia’s Taymyr Peninsula, normally locked in by ice, was similarly open. According to a press release from the U.S. National Ice Center, “This is the first recorded occurrence of the Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route both being open at the same time.”
However, only a few weeks later, in November 2008, the situation was completely different as shown on the following map:
|Arctic sea ice extent for November 2008 was 10.63 million square kilometers (4.10 million square miles). The magenta line shows the 1979 to 2000 average extent for November. The black cross indicates the geographic North Pole. Sea Ice Index data. About the data. Credit: National Snow and Ice Data Center|
|Video introduction by Svend Aage Christensen|
Are the northern sea routes really the shortest?
USA: US Arctic Region Policy (National Security Presidential Directive/NSPD – 66, Homeland Security Presidential Directive/HSPD – 25)
National Snow and Ice Data Center. Arctic Sea Ice News & Analysis http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/
Canada: Canadian Polar Commission http://www.polarcom.gc.ca/index.php
Canada's Extended Continental Shelf http://www.international.gc.ca/continental/index.aspx?lang=eng
The Northern Dimension of Canada's Foreign Policy http://www.international.gc.ca/polar-polaire/ndfp-vnpe2.aspx?lang=en#l8
Norway: The Norwegian Government's Strategy for the High North http://www.regjeringen.no/en/dep/ud/Documents/Reports-programmes-of-action-and-plans/Action-plans-and-programmes/2006/strategy-for-the-high-north.html?id=448697
The Norwegian Governments High North Portal,
International Northern Sea Route Programme – INSROP - http://www.fni.no/insrop/
Fridtjof Nansen Institutet, FNI News, Arctic Shipping: Transit Still Far off, but Legal Regime Needs Strengthening, http://www.fni.no/news/070413.html
Russia: President Medvedev’s speech at the Meeting of the Russian Security Council on Protecting Russia’s National Interests in the Arctic - 17.09.2008
The Russian Security Council on its meeting 17.09.2008 and the preparation of a new Russian strategy for the Arctic, Заседание Совета Безопасности Российской Федерации «О защите национальных интересов Российской Федерации в Арктике», http://www.scrf.gov.ru/news/351.html
Основы государственной политики Российской Федерации в Арктике на период до 2020 года и дальнейшую перспективу [Main points of the state policy of the Russian Federation in the Arctic for the period to 2020 and further on], 18 September, 2008, http://www.scrf.gov.ru/documents/98.html
Information concerning the maritime doctrine of Russia and other issues related to shipping http://www.denmark.mid.ru/7e7.html
The Russian language version of the maritime doctrine of Russia http://www.morskayakollegiya.ru/legislation/doktrinalnye_i_k/
Denmark, Faroe Islands, and Greenland:
Strategy for activities in the Arctic area (in Danish), May 2008, http://www.um.dk/NR/rdonlyres/962AFDC2-30CE-412D-B7C7-070241C7D9D8/0/ARKTISK_STRATEGI.pdf
The Continental Shelf Project, http://a76.dk/lang_uk/main.html
Asiaq Greenland Survey. Hydrology, climate, and environment, http://www.asiaq.gl/index.asp?lang=eng&num=191
Danish National Space Institute
Danish Maritime Safety Administration
The Centre for Ocean and Ice at the Danish Meteorological Institute DMI regularly produces ice charts covering the Greenland Waters http://www.dmi.dk/dmi/en/gronland/iskort.htm
Danish Polar Center http://www.dpc.dk/sw494.asp
The Faroese Earth and Energy Directorate http://www.jardfeingi.fo/Default.asp
International organisations: Ilulissat Declaration, 28 May, 2008
ACIA - Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, http://www.acia.uaf.edu/
AMSA, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment of the Arctic Council’s Protection of the Arctic Marine Environment Working Group, The Future of Arctic Marine Navigation in Mid-Century, Scenario Narratives Report,
Contact: Senior researcher Svend Aage Christensen,