In September 1846, the Erebus and the Terror, the two ships commanded by British Royal Navy captain Sir John Franklin, got trapped in the Arctic ice while in search of the Northwest Passage, the sea lane that would link the Atlantic with the Pacific through the islands of northern Canada. Franklin and his 128 crew members all perished, and it was not until 1906 that the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen finally managed to complete a sea voyage that was never accessible to regular shipping traffic. Today, the Arctic polar ice mass is shrinking due to climate change, which is opening up potential alternative routes for global trade, something that became particularly important with the accident that blocked the Suez Canal in March 2021. However, experts warn that the risks of exploiting the Arctic may be unmanageable, both geopolitically and environmentally.
In February 2021, a large commercial cargo ship completed the Northern Sea Route (NSR) for the first time in the middle of winter. The Russian natural gas tanker Christophe de Margerie, sailed from Jiangsu, China to a port in Siberia along the NSR, the Russian segment of the Northeast Passage linking the Bering Strait with Norway. Earlier, in the summer of 2018, the Danish company Maersk had sent a container freighter through the NSR for the first time. Russia is keen to develop this route, as it falls under its control and considerably shortens the crossing between Asia and Europe compared to the current route through the Suez Canal. China has also announced its intention to open a “Polar Silk Road” through the Arctic.
The growth of this maritime traffic is already a reality today: in 2020, 32.97 million tonnes of cargo moved along the NSR, 1.5 million tonnes more than the previous year, and the Kremlin intends to boost this figure to 80 million tonnes by 2024 and 130 million tonnes by 2035. Currently these routes are only accessible for a short period in late summer. But on its mid-winter journey, Christophe de Margerie only found ice formed during the year, not old ice built-up over several years. The Canadian Arctic is also under increasing pressure: “Ship traffic has doubled or tripled in the Canadian Arctic over the past three decades, and in some areas has seen a continued, large increase over the past decade” William Halliday, an Arctic conservation scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and the University of Victoria, tells OpenMind. According to Halliday, the Northwest Passage is not yet being used at the same level as the NSR, but growth is strong.
Companies and governments have expressed their intention to develop the Arctic routes for all-season use, using vessels capable of breaking through moderate ice thicknesses. And these desires are facilitated by the progressive decline in the ice mass due to climate change: September 2012—the month when the ice shrinks the most each year—saw the historic low in Arctic ice cover, at 3.41 million km2, 18% lower than in 2007, the previous record, and almost half the 1979-2000 average. September 2020 was the second lowest in history. The data indicate that the Arctic is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, as melting ice exposes dark surfaces that absorb more solar radiation.
But in addition to the expected opposition to the opening of these potential new routes by those with a vested interest in the traditional ones, this is not just a battle for commercial sea lanes. The Arctic hides immense deposits of hydrocarbons and minerals that have so far scarcely been exploited: according to estimates, the region could contain some 90 billion barrels of oil and a fifth of the world’s natural gas, as well as precious metals and rare earths—materials used in new technologies and for which China now has a near monopoly. This is driving a new gold rush among northern nations competing to get their hands on these valuable resources. Analysts already speak of an “Arctic cold war” that is fuelling military escalation in the region and ratcheting up international tensions.
Nevertheless, experts question whether these sea lanes will be as accessible as intended. “I don’t expect Arctic shipping routes to ever rival other major shipping routes such as via the Suez Canal,” Scott Stephenson, a political and environmental geographer at the RAND Corporation, tells OpenMind. Together with his colleague Laurence Smith, now at Brown University, Stephenson published an analysis based on several global climate models, “many of which show a nearly ice-free Arctic for a brief period in September,” he notes. Thus, by the middle of this century, a clear path through the NSR and the Northwest Passage, and even an icebreaker-accessible route traversing the North Pole itself, could open up every September.
But while a September-only route could hardly be considered commercially viable, Stephenson warns that the decline in polar ice could be faster than predicted: “The actual rate of Arctic sea ice melt could exceed the rate projected in models, which would result in earlier and longer Arctic shipping seasons,” he says. “Many model projections have been shown to be conservative relative to observations; I would not be surprised if the Arctic becomes nearly ice-free for a brief time in September within the next ten years, as some scientists have suggested.”
If much of the current Suez Canal traffic were to be diverted through the Arctic, one obvious impact would be increased black carbon emissions in the polar region, which, according to a recent study co-authored by Stephenson, could intensify sea ice melt. But interestingly, due to altered climate circulations, this effect could also be felt in regions far from the sea routes themselves, such as the Greenland Sea in the case of the NSR. The expert points to another obvious threat: “Increased risk of oil spills, which would likely be much more difficult to clean up in the Arctic due to the distance that clean-up crews would have to travel to the spill site.”
However, the Arctic routes don’t need to become the new Suez Canal for the fragile polar ecosystem to suffer serious damage. Scientific studies have documented how the current increase in shipping traffic is already affecting various species of fish and mammals. The noise introduced by ships into the silent realm of ice, which has doubled or even increased tenfold in just six years, alters the movements and behaviour of polar cod, a species that in turn sustains the food supply of seabirds, marine mammals and indigenous populations.
Among mammals, although the polar bear is often the most visible victim from the perspective of the general public, it is in fact other species that suffer more, notably narwhals, which are much affected by the presence or lack of sea ice, and beluga whales, which rely on a communication system that is highly sensitive to ambient noise. “For marine mammals in particular, underwater noise is a major concern for Arctic species because they’ve been shown to react to low levels of noise at very great distances,” Halliday notes. “For example, beluga and narwhal react to noise from an icebreaker ship from 50 km away.” Also, cooler waters and the light that enters them when the ice disappears, along with light pollution from artificial lighting, attract invasive species from warmer regions and facilitate the adaptation of those that are discharged with ships’ ballast water or that travel attached to hulls.
In short, all this paints a worrying picture that justifies the strong calls from institutions and organisations to urgently establish international regulations and limitations to ensure the sustainable management of the Arctic, guaranteeing the long-term preservation of one of the planet’s last relatively intact frontiers.