The Great White (and blue) North
One of the biggest questions for researchers – at least in commercial and geopolitical terms – is the impact of climate change on shipping routes. What is already clear is that climate change will ease travel, opening up larger areas (temporarily or permanently) and thinning the ice elsewhere.
Russia is already showing that, whatever the ice, it is determined to press ahead with circumpolar trade. According to Katarzyna Zysk of the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, Russia aims by 2015 to have established and developed an infrastructure and system of management of communications for the north-eastern route, through Russian waters, and some Russian forecasts expect that the cargo flowing through this route may rise to 13 to 15 million tonnes by 2015.
Russia can do this because it has by far the world’s largest fleet of icebreakers – 14, seven of them nuclear-powered. For other states and international shippers, circumpolar trade depends on ‘ice-free’ travel. The expectation is that ice will recede to such an extent that it will be possible to sail each year from Europe to Asia impeded only by ice floes and icebergs, both through the north-east passage and the north-west passage, through Canadian waters. Forecasts of when that will happen regularly were up-ended in 2007, when the north-west passage was briefly sailable. The expectation, though, is that at most the passages could be navigable for a few weeks a year.
They will not, then, be the equivalent of the Panama Canal. As a result, says Daniel Hosseus of the German Ship-owners’ Association (VDR), “from a shipping point of view, for the time being, the Arctic ought to be seen primarily as a destination”.
This reflects an expectation that new industry will develop in the region. Climate change inland may also encourage development along the coasts. Much of the existing big industry in the High North – mainly in Canada, Alaska and Siberia – depends on ‘winter roads’, made of layers of ice deliberately formed. As the climate changes, these will become less reliable.
But to reach these ports and industries, shippers will need to upgrade their fleets. Even ‘young ice’, the ice that develops and melts away within a year, requires reinforced hulls; and future international rules may require all ships above a certain latitude to meet polar standards. Polar tankers for liquefied natural gas are being developed in South Korea, but shippers – and, despite the decline in its ship-making industry, nearly 40% of the world’s ships have European flags or owners – have plenty of work ahead of them.
This interest could increase the importance of Iceland, whose capital, Reykjavik, is already the largest non-Russian Arctic port. As Stefán Haukur Jóhannesson, Iceland’s chief EU negotiator, says, the country’s position means it would be affected by the opening up of both the north-western and north-eastern passages, as well as by the rise in tourism.
However active it becomes economically, the High North will remain remote. So much of the current shipping debate is about two things: what standards ships should abide by and, secondly, search and rescue. Cruise ships have gained special prominence in the current debate, perhaps because cruise ships are early – and rather risk-blind – polar voyagers. In 2007, a cruise ship sank when it hit an iceberg in Antarctica; ships continue to pass within hundreds of metres of icebergs. One idea is that cruise ships should travel in pairs, in case one is struck by disaster.
Establishing an international ‘polar code’ for shipping is a common priority; for shippers, the difference of rules in Russian waters is a concern. Such a code would be agreed through the International Maritime Organization, of which the EU is not a member (though the European Commission has observer status). Nonetheless, the range of issues involved in shipping – including pollution – means that the stance on Arctic-related issues that the EU adopts in its integrated maritime strategy will be of major importance.
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