Part 3: The Future of the Northern Sea Route - A “Golden Waterway” or a Niche Trade Route

by Malte Humpert Part 2 of the series on the future of the Northern Sea Route discussed global trade dynamics and explained if the NSR would in fact be compatible with world trade patterns. Part 3 will take a closer look at climate change in the Arctic and its impact on the future of the NSR. How quickly do scientists expect the remaining summer ice to disappear and at what stage could year-round operations along the NSR commence?

The regional impact of global climate change has been most amplified in the Arctic, where the annual average temperature has increased at double the global rate over the last 100 years. The Arctic is now warmer than is has been at any time during the last 2,000 years.[1] The Arctic Ocean, which has had perennial ice cover for the past 700,000 years, is on a trajectory to a new, seasonally ice-free, state.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that over the next century, Arctic temperature increases will exceed the global annual mean by a factor of four and will range between 4.3 degrees Celsius (°C) and 11.4°C in the winter and 1.2°C and 5.3°C in the summer.[3] This temperature rise will continue to have dramatic effects on Arctic sea-ice extent, which has diminished 40 percent between 1979 and 2010.[4]

Over this same period, the Arctic sea ice has thinned considerably, experiencing a decline in average volume of 70 percent.[5] The reductions in both sea-ice extent and volume render the remaining ice more vulnerable to secondary risk factors, such as changing wind patterns, ocean circulation, and reduced sea-ice albedo. As a general rule, first-year ice is more likely to melt during the summer months than multiyear ice, since ice that survives the summer is able to harden and become denser during the following winter. The Arctic has witnessed rapid loss in multiyear ice: whereas in 1988 the vast majority of ice was between four and 10 years old, by 2005 the majority of ice was less than four years old.

Studies differ widely in their predictions of when summer sea ice will melt completely. Current climate models tend to underestimate the rate of sea ice retreat.[7] Prior to the events of 2007, the IPCC forecasted an ice-free Arctic for the latter part of the twenty-first century.[8] The panel reported that "the projected reduction [in global sea ice cover] is accelerated in the Arctic, where some models project summer sea ice cover to disappear entirely in the high-emission A2 scenario in the latter part of the 21st century."[9] 

Most studies published since the sea ice collapse of 2007 expect a dramatic reduction of summer ice by the mid-2020s. In an interview with National Geographic, Mark Serreze from the National Snow and ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Boulder, Colorado is on record saying the Arctic's summer sea ice will fully melt around 2030. Other scientists do not expect the summer ice to survive beyond 2017.[10]

The NSR cannot be thought of as one clearly defined linear route, but should instead be understood as the whole sea area north of Russia. Due to highly variable and difficult ice conditions along most of the NSR, the optimal route choice for vessels navigating the NSR will vary. These navigational challenges throughout the Arctic have prompted the American defense contractor and industrial corporation Raytheon, to develop an Arctic Monitoring and Prediction program (RAMP). RAMP provides “mechanisms to collect, analyze, predict, and rapidly share data [..] which provides operational users key information in real time on critical topics such as ocean currents, shortest and safest navigational routes, ice concentration, open shipping lanes, and natural resource locations.”

Thus far ships only travel along the coastal NSR and stay within 120 miles of the shore. They must also pass to the south of numerous islands in the Laptev and Kara Sea as ice continues to exist further north throughout the summer. In contrast to the transit NSR, the costal NSR has significant draught and beam restrictions. Hence, one of the often cited advantages of the NSR, the lack of size restrictions, will only materialize once areas to the north become ice free as well. Currently, ships that are too large to pass through the Panama and the Suez Canal, such as most Very Large (VLCC) and Ultra Large Crude Carrier (ULCC), as well as Capesize container ships, are also too large to travel the NSR.

A study on Arctic marine shipping commissioned by the Arctic Council estimates that the NSR will be navigational without the assistance of icebreakers for 90-100 days only by 2080.[11] Even then ships traveling along the route would still require ice-breaker assistance during the rest of the year and year-round operations cannot be guaranteed. This study may, however, underestimate the speed at which the route is opening up. The 2011 shipping season along the NSR is expected to last almost 4 months. Once ice free and light ice conditions can be more or less guaranteed for several months the route may become more attractive for shipping owners. Shipping companies are increasingly using moderately ice-strengthened vessels which can operate earlier during the summer and later into the fall. The use of ice-strengthened vessels may eventually prompt Russia to reduce its ice breaker fees or abolish the escorts all together. This would reduce costs and improve competitiveness for shipping along the NSR.

While shipping traffic along the NSR may soon be technically feasible year round, ice will continue to hamper large-scale operations over the coming decades. As long as the northern sections of the NSR remain  choked with ice VLCC, ULCC and Capesize ships will not venture into the Arctic, but instead continue to travel along the traditional shipping routes.

Part 4 on Cost Savings Along the NSR will be published on Friday, September 30th.

[1] Nicola Jone, “Arctic Ocean Feels the Heat.” Nature, January 27, 2011,
[2] Thomas Worsley and Yvonne Herman, “Episodic Ice-Free Arctic Ocean in Pliocene and Pleistocene Time: Calcareous Nannofossil Evidence.” Science 210, no. 4467 (1980): 323–25.
[3] IPCC, “Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis,”
[4] National Snow and Ice Data Center, “State of the Cryosphere,” October 27, 2010,
[5] Polar Science Center, “Arctic Sea Ice Volume Anomaly,”
[6] Albedo is the reflecting power of a surface. It is measured on a scale from zero (no reflecting power) to one (perfect reflection). The Earth’s average albedo is 0.3. Sea ice has an albedo of 0.5–0.7, depending on how “dirty” and old the ice is. The water of the Arctic Ocean has an albedo of only 0.07 and thus absorbs the vast majority of the solar radiation instead of reflecting it back.
[7] Stroeve, J.; Holland, M. M.; Meier, W.; Scambos, T.; Serreze, M. (2007). "Arctic sea ice decline: Faster than forecast". Geophysical Research Letters 34 (9)
[9] Meehl, G.A., and others; Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group I. (2007).
[10] John Roach, “Arctic Largely Ice Free in Summer Within Ten Years?” October 15, 2009,
[11] Honor Mahony, “Arctic shipping routes unlikely to be 'Suez of the north'” July 6, 2011,