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Northwest Passage


With the relentless pace at which global climate change has marched forward, the northern bastions of ice have been reduced to mere skeletons, the ice melt rapidly accelerating since the 1970s.These extensive topological shifts in the Arctic have fueled a renewed political debate over the resource rich lands and potential trade routes of the North.

The semi-mythical Northwest Passage, a water route connecting the North Atlantic to the Pacific, has been furiously sought after by the likes of 16th century voyagers. It has recently become a reality. In 2007, enough sea-ice had thawed that the Northwest Passage was readily navigable by commercial charters without the need of an escort icebreaker. The passage, however, only remained opened for a brief window in the summer. Still, the seas remain rough and the terrain not easily traversable even within these few ice-free summer months. The possibility of a non-season dependent Northwest Passage and Northern Sea Route in the near half-century may intensify current geopolitical anxieties between our northern neighbors as well as affect the nature of modern trade and communication.

These newly opened routes will soon attract a flurry of commercial activity. The Northern Passage (the waterway above North America) and the Northern Sea Route (above Northern Eurasia) provide substantial shortcuts to current shipping routes. Shipping companies will be able to cut down on total trip distance, fuel used, and man-hours per shipment. Felix H. Tschudi, chair of Tschudi shipping, claimed that a cargo ship passing through the Northern Sea Route with a maximum load would be able to reduce travel by 22 days and save approximately 800,000 dollars and 1,000 tons of fuel. Other ships like the Nordic Orion were able to maximize the cargo potential because they no longer had to abide by displacement limits placed by canals.

However, are the Arctic passages actually practical options for shipping companies? Many speculators like the U.S. Maritime Administration (MARAD) have seemed to suggest that the arctic melt process will take too long to grant the Northern passage any immediate consideration, or that the melting patterns of ice in the North are irregular and may cause disruptions in shipping. Others insist that the lack of infrastructure and docks could drive trade “South.” Additionally, the lack of alternative destinations along the main waterway could potentially decrease economic incentive to use these northern trade routes. Most of these claims, however, seem immaterial in light of most recent evidence.

Most trends exhibited by environmental and economic factors point in a similar direction: the arctic will be open for business in a short period of time. Professor Wieslaw Maslowski of the U.S. Department of Energy, through analysis of previous statistics of recorded ice coverage and ice thickness, has modeled that the Arctic could potentially lose all of its summer ice coverage by as early as 2016. More conservative estimates point towards 2030 as the environmentally calamitous moment when all summer sea ice coverage is lost. The general academic consensus, derived from research satellites like PIOMAS and CryoSat-2 that record sea ice distribution and thickness, suggests that melting is a steady process which will inevitably open up these waterways within a fairly short time period. Even today, a steady increasing stream of traffic can be observed: four cargo ships in 2010, thirty-four in 2011, and seventy-one in 2013, as reported by the Council on Foreign Relations.

The implications of a massive trade artery in the Arctic will most likely cause increased political tension and severe ecological aggravation. Although the Arctic is largely governed by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, which specifies areas of international jurisdiction, northern nations will remain intent on protecting their economic zones of interest. The exclusive economic zones may spark tensions, as did past debates between Canada and the U.S. over the Beaufont Sea. Canada’s continued insistence of sovereignty over the water routes around the Canadian Arctic Archipelago may be troublesome for the international community. Although Canada had previously signed the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention in 1982, which prohibited the closing of an international straight by the “drawing of straight baselines,” it steadfastly protests free travel of the region without express approval from the state. Growing concerns about sovereignty may cause diplomatic disputes if Canada invokes internal waters policies on traversing vessels. Increase sea traffic will undoubtedly exacerbated this current diplomatic situation, so it must be remedied before the herds of commercial traders commence their seasonal migrations.

On the other hand, Russia has placed extensive emphasis on maintaining their dominance of the fledgling Arctic trade, making a firm commitment to increase their Arctic presence. Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed great interest in expanding the capacity of the Russian Arctic fleet of atomic powered icebreakers, and has invested 38 billion rubles on building massive escort ships and northern infrastructure, even taking actions to re-establish airfields and arctic meteorological services. Additionally, Putin released a statement in 2011 that the Northern Sea Route would rival traditional waterways’ in “service, security, and quality.” Russia has now begun their return to old military bases in the New Siberian Islands to project their hegemony over the Arctic. The militarization of a potentially major trade route may cause serious diplomatic tensions, especially when Russia has so clearly emphasized their intentions for “(holding) all levers for protection of its security and national interests.”

“These territories are the new wild west,” explained Berkeley Prof. of Public Policy, Michael O’Hare. With such unclaimed economic potential from trade routes, oil and resource rich seas, clear danger looms. No one may really be able to foresee what these geopolitical tensions might bring, but the international community must navigate such icy and perilous waters with great care.