The Future of Arctic Shipping along the Transpolar Sea Route

Below you can find a short excerpt of a paper on the Transpolar Sea Route  published by the Arctic Yearbook, a research project by the Northern Research Forum and the University of the Arctic Thematic Network (TN) on Geopolitics and Security. You can read the full article and many others here.

By Malte Humpert and Andreas Raspotnik The Transpolar Sea Route (TSR) represents the most direct route for trans-Arctic shipment but has yet to attract significant commercial interest, as multi-year ice remains a formidable obstacle for most of the Arctic shipping season. The effects of climate change are, however, increasingly observed throughout the region and the Arctic is now warmer than it has been at any time during the last 2,000 years. Summer ice extent has declined by 40% since satellite observation began in 1979. Over the same period, Arctic sea ice has thinned considerably, experiencing a decline in average volume of 70%. Within the next decade this warming trend may transform the region from an inaccessible frozen desert into a seasonally navigable ocean and the Arctic Ocean may be ice-free for short periods as early as 2015.

Seaborne trade currently accounts for 90% of world trade and is dominated by the transportation of raw materials, tanker trade, and other dry cargo, including containerized cargo. The growing importance of the trade relationship between Europe and Asia and the resulting increase in seaborne traffic between the two regions will result in further congestion and a higher risk of collisions along the existing sea routes and their choke points, e.g. the Suez Canal and the Strait of Malacca.

Trans-Arctic shipping, regardless of the actual route used, will not serve as a substitute for existing shipping routes, but will instead be supplemental and provide additional capacity for a growing transportation volume. For the foreseeable future, the limited seasonal window for trans-Arctic voyages must be taken into account in any projections. Nonetheless, the development of Arctic offshore hydrocarbon resources and related economic activities will result in an improved integration of the Arctic economy in global trade patterns.

The Arctic region has become increasingly politicized, affecting its future development and influencing the policy decisions of Arctic countries. The Arctic Ocean’s potential economic and geostrategic importance has also begun to attract the attention of non-Arctic actors, who are in the process of defining their interests and intentions. The People’s Republic of China, in addition to the European Union (EU), is arguably the most important non-Arctic actor and will be instrumental to the development and future of the TSR.

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About the article: 
The authors highlight the future potential of the Transpolar Sea Route, an Arctic shipping route which has thus far been neglected in the realm of academia and in the public eyes. The article represents the first comprehensive assessment on the feasibility of the TSR from a climatic and economic standpoint and discusses how legal and geostrategic considerations will influence the development of this shipping route. The authors conclude that the opening and future development of Arctic shipping routes will not only depend on favorable climatic conditions across the Arctic Ocean, but will also be influenced by a shift in economic and political spheres of influence. The development of the TSR and its significant economic potential may in part be determined by key geostrategic considerations as the center of economic and political power continues to shift towards Asia.