[Show/Hide Left Column]

Water Spaces of Transportation of the Arctic Passages

(by Willy Østreng)


There is an obvious and at time considerable distance advantage involved in using the Arctic Ocean between ports in the Pacific and those in the Atlantic, as compared to the Suez and Panama Canals. Most of the North American West coast, the Russian east coast, Japan, Northern Korea and China are all closer to the European Union/European Economic Area through the Arctic than by way of the Mediterranean. Thus viewed, the Arctic Ocean is indeed an ‘industrial Mediterranean’- a shortcut between the most industrialized regions of the world. At first glance, this geographical feature applies differently to the three Passages.

All IPCC climate models predict that the Arctic Ocean will continue to freeze over in winter. What climate change will affect is the volume of sea ice that will be thinner and contain smaller fractions of multi-year ice and that the coastal areas gradually will experience longer periods of open waters. All indications are that the blue water portion of the Arctic Ocean will increase over time and provide better sailing conditions for cargo shipping. Therefore, coastal areas will be in the centre of industry attention in the years ahead, and the focus will be on destination Arctic and intra-Arctic sailings. The TPP will be of less interest due to its permanent ice cover. No commercial ship has ever completed a voyage across the Central Arctic Ocean, and prospects are that years will pass before that happens. It is the ice free spaces along the NEP and NWP that carry the most immediate potential for increasing shipping activities in the short and medium terms, not least because this is where the most easily accessible resources are located and where developmental project will be started. This overall trend applies differently to the Passages.

The Northeast Passage

Most north Pacific ports in Asia are closer to London on the Atlantic via the NEP than through the Suez. The distance between Yokohama in Japan and Hamburg in Germany is only 6 600 nm by way of the NEP, as against 11 400 nm. through the Suez Canal. This implies a 42% reduction in freight distance. Between the town of Tromsø in northern Norway and Vancouver on the Canadian west coast 3 350 nm can be saved using the NEP instead of the Panama Canal. These savings in distance have resulted in significant time-saving benefits. As has been demonstrated time and again, Russian vessels have in summertime been able to save in between 10 to 15 days at sea by using this Passage between Japanese and North American ports instead of going through the Mediterranean. The accelerating sea ice melt will extend the number of months in which such time savings can be achieved.

In recent years, stretches of open water extends in summer westward from the Taymyr peninsula to the Barents Sea and eastward from the same peninsula to the Bering Strait. Satellite imageries of the tip of the Taymyr peninsula show that fast ice is present and reluctant to give way to global warming, requiring voyages between the eastern and western part still to go through a limited stretch of sea ice in summer. Whereas multiple ports along the whole Passage has been the recipients of intra-Arctic shipping ever since the October revolution, destination Arctic shipping is to a large extent located to the western part. The Kara Sea Route has been operated on an annual basis ever since 1978 taking nickel from Dudinka to Murmansk, and since the turn of the century oil and gas have been added to the list of cargo being transported westward along the same route. These shipments are believed to be stepped up in the years ahead due to the rich resource base of western Siberia and Northwest Russia and the accessibility of ships to these waters on a year round basis. The ice forming during winter in this part of the route is mostly first year, which is relatively easy to overcome with ice strengthened oil and gas tankers. For the period up to 2020 and beyond Russia will, according to her policy plans of 2009 use her Arctic Zone as a strategic resource base for the socio-economic development of the country as such. A main goal is to expand the resource basis of the Zone to satisfy Russia’s needs for oil and gas and other types of strategic minerals, and to transform the Zone into a leading national strategic resource base in the period 2016-2020. In this overall scheme of development the NSR will be used “as a unified national transport link” and will still be open for international navigation. The likelihood is that the eastern part of the NSR, which is the least developed, will reap some benefits from this scheme. Up until the present, this part of the route has mostly attracted intra-Arctic shipping lasting from only 3 to 4 months every year.

In the Barents Sea two shipping routes have been established between the archipelago of Svalbard and cities on the Russian and Norwegian mainland. Cargo ships from Murmansk supply the Russian community in Spitsbergen and bring coal back to the city of Murmansk, whereas Norwegian ships do the same between the “capital of Svalbard, Longyearbyen and the city of Tromsø in North Norway. These routes have been in operation throughout summer ever since the early 1900, and in recent years the Norwegian route has been operated on a commercially viable basis. In addition, a rapidly increasing number of cruise ships calls on different locations in the archipelago during summer, and the Barents Sea has for decades been an arena of important fisheries.

The Northwest Passage

On the condition of geography only, most of the freight routes of the NWP are comparable in distance to those of the NEP. From the Baffin Island in the east to Bank Island in the west – the most troublesome stretch of the Passage – the distance is about 1300 nm In addition comes the waters of the Baffin Bay, the Beaufort Sea and the six other routes that breaks off at Banks Island and take a more southerly course through the archipelago before it reaches the Beaufort Sea. Thus, in terms of distance only the same saving benefits may apply to the NWP as to the NEP.

The Canadian part of the NWP consists of seven different routes running through a massive archipelago with narrow and often ice clogged straits. Sea ice conditions within the archipelago vary dramatically from one year to another, from season to season and within seasons, presenting unpredictability to any surface operation. In the summers of 2007 and 2008 most of the archipelago was for the first time in centuries ice free, promising to open the Passage to commercial shipping. There is mounting evidence that the sea ice reductions recorded so far will continue, but the uncertainty is great as to the rate at which the ice will diminish. According to the Canadian Ice Service, it is quite likely that the latter half of this century will still experience occasional summers with ice conditions as severe as those witnessed in the 1980s. In such events, multi-year ice in low concentrations, will present a major hazard to shipping. The AMSA report concurs; stating that ice conditions makes it nearly impossible to schedule sailings with any degree of certainty of reaching the desired port on schedule. Although the area is supposed to be rich in resources – not least in oil and gas - Canadian authorities seem doubtful if the route will be opened up to high volumes of international commercial shipping at least in the medium term. The bulk of shipping will continue to be mostly intra-Arctic - restricted to a few summer months. For all practical purposes, the Canadian NWP will be “closed” for shipping for at least 8 months each year in that Canada withdraw its operational resources (icebreakers etc) from the area at the end of  summer.

The Trans Polar Passage

Voyages between Atlantic and Pacific ports across the North Pole will provide an additional saving of 700 nm as compared to the other Passages. This equals a saving in freight distance of one third of the whole stretch of the NSR or half of the coast of Norway (without fiords and bays), which is the biggest chunk of the Northern Maritime Corridor. In this calculation the TPP is 1500 nm long measured from the Fram Corridor across the Pole to the Bering Strait. A distance reduction of such a magnitude may under certain specific conditions be converted into further savings in transport time. However, this calculation does not take into account the corridor features of Passages and the types of ships employed in Arctic navigation.

The waters of the TPP are ice covered on a year round basis. This, however, does not deter the EU Commission from stating that transit sailings will considerably shorter trips from Europe to the Pacific, save energy, reduce emissions, promote trade and diminish the pressure on main trans-continental navigation channels. To secure the possibility of transits in all time spans, the Commission makes it clear that no country or groups of countries have sovereignty over the North Pole or the Arctic Ocean around it. This is to say that the freedom of navigation and the freedoms of the High Seas shall rule the waters of the TPP. To achieve this, the EU will work with the Arctic states to develop a “cooperative Arctic governance system.” According to the Commission, transit sailings will also act as a counter measure to avoid transportation routes through troubled southern waters – the Suez and Panama Canals, East China and Indian Seas.

The U.S. also denounces the drafting of an Arctic Treaty of broad scope. Such a treaty is according to the White House, inappropriate and unnecessary due to “geopolitical circumstances.” On the question of the freedom of the High Seas, the EU and the USA have taken a joint position. This position will be challenged if the Russian government officially declares the NSR to extend to the North Pole as suggested by her polar scientists and some international lawyers.

The Passages in Comparison

Due to the presence of sea ice neither of the Passages can offer ships a single navigation lane to follow. In practice ships are forced to use the channel that offers the best ice and navigational conditions at any time and place. Thus, each and one of the Passages are more like broad transportation corridors, containing several alternative navigational channels and fairly huge expanses of water. A voyage along the TPP can therefore be longer than those conducted along the coastal corridors and vice versa. As long as sea ice is a dominant feature of the Arctic Ocean it is at the outset hard to decide which of the Passages offer the shortest sailing distance.  Navigational zig-sag around ice floes to find suitable waters of operation makes the distance of voyages unpredictable and uncertain. To this come differences in the icebreaking capabilities of ships. Icebreakers are more capable of cutting through thick ice floes and take a straight course than cargo ships. Ice conditions also vary between the Passages. First year ice is more frequent in the coastal areas than in the Central Arctic Ocean. This makes it “easier” to break ice in the NEP and NWP than in the TPP.

Multiple factors are involved in deciding shipping distances in Arctic waters. Therefore, the focus should be on the individual voyages and ships rather than on the length of the Passages when it comes to calculate the distance between ports in southern waters through the Arctic. This is clearly illustrated by the fact that the difference between the shortest and the longest navigational channels of the NSR is 700 nm which is the same length that the TPP is geographically shorter than the other Passages. As of the present, sea ice conditions, ship types and geography are the main interaction factors deciding the ultimate length of any voyage. If ice conditions and ship types are not part of the calculation it is not possible to decide the distance to be covered. However, in the long term improving ice conditions will gradually alter the premise of this conclusion and enhance the role of geography, which will play out fully only if the Arctic Ocean gets ice free. Indications are that voyages between the Bering Strait and Kirkenes in North Norway undertaken under ice free conditions and north of the archipelagos may take less than 10 days.

As long as sea ice conditions prevail in the Arctic Ocean, none of the Passages have a definite distance advantage over the others. In the relation between the three Passages, the TPP can only provide a distance advantage if the ocean is free of ice. Geopolitically speaking, the shipping industry is bound to focus on a complexity of interacting factors to calculate the length of any Arctic voyage.

The water spaces available to shipping operations along the two coastal Passages differ. Despite of climate change, the NWP will continue to be controlled by ice conditions in the most narrow of straits even in summer. It may also take years before the Canadian Arctic matches the volume of resources extracted when compared with Alaska and the Russian North. As sea ice conditions are widely accepted to improve more rapidly in the NEP than in the Canadian Archipelago, the NWP   will most likely not open up for high volumes of international transit shipping, or for that matter be a serious competitor to the NEP in destination Arctic shipping, neither in the short or medium term. Although, expectations are that Arctic destination shipping will increase also for the NWP,  the bulk of shipping activities in this area will stay moderate and mostly be intra-Arctic in character (as is the case today). The waters running along the Alaskan coast are the only part of the NWP that may host a realistic potential for a notable increase in destination shipping in the medium and long term. Transit sailings may be undertaken through all three Passages. In terms of distance the one may be as good as the others (see above), and in terms of manoeuvrable sea ice the best shot in general is the NEP.

The NEP is by far the most attractive of the three Passages when it comes to offer spaces of manoeuvrable ice, both in terms of transit and destination Arctic shipping. Geopolitically, this implies that Russia, controlling the waters of the NSR, has a key role in regional shipping in all time perspectives. If the sea ice disappears – seasonally or permanently – the power position of the Russian government will be weakened when it comes to multinational transit sailings. In such a scenario the TPP will assume a more prominent position of utility.


    Willy Østreng, 2010, Water Spaces of Transportation of the Arctic Passages, CHNL.©