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The Transportation Passages of the Arctic Ocean 

(by Willy Østreng)


The assumption that the Arctic Ocean has three partly separated transportation passages dates back approximately 500 years. In 1527 the English Merchant Robert Thorne suggested the existence of three alternative sea routes through these icy waters, “all of which were supposed to lead to the spice markets of the East Indies”: the NWP, the NEP and the “open polar sea-route via the North Pole1. This idea stood the test of times and was gradually and imaginably developed, first by the famous Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov claiming in the later part of the 17th century that the Central Arctic Ocean was ice-free and easily navigable between the Far East and Europe. Hundred years later the German geographer, August Peterman followed suit explaining that the ice-free part of the Arctic Ocean was due to the warming effect of the Gulf Stream. The assumptions of an ice free Central Arctic Ocean had no scientific justification or foundation, but have attracted renewed interest in light of global warming. Today, all of Thorne’s three passages have been tested and navigated by surface ships.

The Northeast and Northwest Passages are often perceived as coastal sea lanes, whereas the Trans Polar Passage is assumed to be a mid-ocean route across the North Pole to and from ports in the Pacific and Atlantic. This perception is far from accurate. Due to the presence of sea ice neither of these transportation passages can offer ships a single set channel to follow. In practice, ships are forced to follow the channel that offers the best ice and navigational conditions at any one time and place. Thus, each and one of them are more like broad transportation corridors stretching out in the North-south direction, containing several alternative navigational channels and fairly huge expanses of ice-infested waters. The corridor feature of these passages implies that they occupy broad stretches of waters that under certain specific circumstances and on occasions make them overlap and interact. In sum, the three corridors occupy the whole of the Arctic Ocean, which covers an area of 14.75 million sq. km and carries a volume of 18 million cubic km. of water. The lack of accurate geographical coordinates in the north-south direction leaves it to future politics and international law to delimit them from each other.

Figure 1.1:  The Arctic Ocean with Transportation Corridors


Source: Mapping Solutions, Lawson Brigham, USARC Anchorage 2006

Politics were involved when the Russian government introduced the concept of the Northern Sea Route as constituting the main part of the NEP in the early 1930s. Therefore we will start our definitional exercise of the routes with the relationship between the NEP and the NSR.


  •  1. Okhuizen (1998), p.4

Willy Østreng, 2010, The Transportation Passages of the Arctic Ocean, CHNL.©