This point was stressed by Qi Shaobin, a professor at the Dalian Maritime University in China.
Opening up the Arctic “will change the market pattern of the global shipping industry because it will shorten the maritime distance significantly among the Chinese, European and American markets,” he told Chinese state media last week.
Shipping figures certainly look encouraging. Russian authorities last week said they had already granted permission for more than 370 ships to sail the route this year. Last year, only 46 ships sailed the entire length of the passage from Europe to Asia, while in 2010, only four vessels made the trip.
In the wake of these figures, several proposals have been announced to take advantage of the expected expansion in Arctic shipping. Iceland is considering plans, backed by German entrepreneurs, to build a major port on its northeastern shores. Similarly, the Stornoway Port Authority in Scotland last month said it was considering building a special port for Arctic ships so they could refuel and discharge cargoes into smaller vessels for onward shipment to Rotterdam, Le Havre, Liverpool or London. In addition, Valentin Davydants, captain of Russia’s Atomflot fleet of nuclear-powered icebreakers, has estimated that 15 million tonnes of cargo will use the full Northern Sea Route by 2021.
It sounds impressive until you realize that 929 million tonnes of cargo was shipped through the Suez Canal by 18,000 vessels in 2011. By that standard, the Northern Sea Route has still got a long way to go in transforming world shipping.
Other issues affect the attractiveness of sailing in Arctic waters. The seas around the north pole may be losing their summer ice cover, but there is still the ever-present danger of icebergs and drifting slabs of pack ice.
“Satellite photographs may suggest an area is completely clear of ice, but there is still a chance that a ship will encounter drifts of ice,” Serreze said. “It is very unlikely that the Yong Sheng will go through these waters on its own. The Russians have the best, most powerful armada of ice-breakers. Some of these are huge nuclear-powered vessels and I would expect one of these will have been hired to escort the Yong Sheng on the main part of its journey.”
The last point is crucial. The Arctic Ocean will eventually lose its sea ice cover for several months in summer, but this is not likely to occur for a couple of decades.
For the foreseeable future, the Northern Sea Route will be open for only a few weeks in summer and still require ice-breaker escorts. These factors will severely limit the route’s potential in the short term, a point stressed by Shanghai International Shipping Institute researcher Zhang Yongfeng.
“The navigable period of the passage is relatively short, while the port and pier infrastructure along the route is incomplete,” he told Fox News.
Then there is the major expansion of the Panama Canal, expected to be completed by 2015. When that happens, it will be possible to take ships that have more than double the upper cargo capacity on vessels currently allowed in the canal. Again, the major beneficiary is expected to be China, with its voracious export plans. The costs of shipping its goods to the eastern US are predicted to drop by more than 30 percent as a result of the Panama’s expansion.