Breaking The Ice

Ian Wallace, Columnist

How the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route will Forever Change Global Commerce.

Whatever the cause may be, the Arctic Ocean is getting warmer and the ice is melting.  While this is a major focus of environmental scientists, business executives and world leaders also have a reason to pay attention.  The ice is giving way to new shipping routes including the Northwest Passage across Canada and the Northern Sea Route above Russia that could revolutionize global shipping patterns.

Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route

According to, the Northwest Passage will be completely clear sometime this century, sparking explorations of icebreaker vessels to survey the ice and attempt to navigate the arctic ocean.  While the passage will only be seasonal at first, Canada and Russia are already starting to explore their arctic seas.  Last year, the Ice Breaker HMS Nordica carried researchers all the way from Barrow, Alaska to Nuuk, Greenland, marking the longest and fastest journey across the Northwest Passage to date.  The Russians also sent a ship across their Northern Sea Route, but it was a normal tanker without an ice breaker, suggesting it’s route is opening even faster than Canada’s.  

Canada and Russia are making haste to survey their arctic ocean sea routes because they may attract a large share of shipping vessels in the next two centuries.  This is largely due to the potential time and cost savings of their routes.  For example, Russia’s Northern Sea Route from Europe to Japan would take 35 days and travels 7,600 miles.  Today’s Suez Canal route currently takes 48 days and travels 11,300 miles.  Canada’s Northwest Passage will also provide a shortcut of thousands of miles.  When shipping companies earn profit every time items are loaded and unloaded and use approximately 55,600 gallons of fuel per journey, these routes could mean saving around 700,000 gallons of fuel per trip and ultimately reduce the cost of shipping for consumers.  Unfortunately for countries such as Egypt and Panama which control the Suez and Panama canals respectively, the new routes will mean less business for the nationalized canals.

Before the Northwest Passage and the Northern Sea Route can be open to commerce, negotiations will have to take place over what is called exclusive economic rights.  In the past, UN treaties have established international waterways on the Turkish and Danish straits to provide access for countries in the Black and Baltic seas.  This prevented countries on the other side to avoid paying dues to pass through their respective straits.  Russia’s geographic location will make a treaty unnecessary, but Canada could receive dues from shipping companies if they continue to claim the Northwest Passage as internal waters just as Panama and Egypt receive fees for their canals.  

Russian Tankard traversing Northern Sea Route

Ultimately, the melting sea ice in the arctic will change the landscape of shipping; the changes brought about by the melting sea ice will probably remain until another major geographic change occurs.  It will benefit the customers from cheaper rates and give the shipping industry higher profits.  Everyone will save money, and possibly the environment as well.  Ironically, the fuel savings from the arctic thaw will not only save money, but it will also help slow the thawing of additional ice due to a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions.   While the events that led to the arctic thaw may have a potential negative impact on our society, we might as well reap the rewards.  

I am Ian Wallace and thanks for reading my latest installment of The Global Review.  I will be taking a week off to cover the Super Bowl.  Please read my next article in the sports section of the Howler next Sunday.