As satellites revealed dramatic photos of the melting northern Polar ice cap this week both environmentalists and marine developers went on red alert but for very different reasons.
The melting ice makes the prospect of a commercially viable Northern Sea Route look increasingly possible. The route links the Pacific to the Atlantic. Ships from the Far East with a destination in Europe are usually forced to take a much longer route via Indonesia, India, the Gulf, up through the crowded Suez Canal, and into the Mediterranean. The Northern Sea Route (NSR, sometimes referred to as the Northeast Passage) would cut the journey time by about 40 percent taking a route west above Canada or east above the Russian Arctic coast. According to Rosatomflot, a Russian state-run corporation, the number of ships taking the NSR has gone up from four in 2010 to 34 last year. More are expected to follow as the ice melts. In an interview with Japanese daily Asahi ShimbunChairman of Norway-based Tschudi Shipping, Felix H. Tschudi, said, “If a cargo ship with a maximum load capacity of 40,000 tons can pass through the Northern Sea Route, that will shorten the journey by 22 days and cost US$839,000 less than going through the Suez Canal.”
The picture is, however, not all rosy for the marine developers who appear to be rubbing their hands with glee: Russia controls the section of the NSR along its coastline. Permission is needed from Russia as is an escort from a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker. So though time at sea is less via the NSR and the toll through the Suez Canal is very costly (about US$250,000) the icebreaker escort is almost twice the canal’s cost, plus the massive insurance costs needed to protect against a ship getting stuck in ice.
However, with record low ice there is the possibility that the icebreaker escorts and the risk of getting stuck may soon be a thing of the past as will the pristine seas of the Arctic warn environmentalists.