Arctic Shipping Routes

Publication Date01 Dec 2011
AuthorFrédéric Lasserre
SubjectI. Issues
| International Journal | Autumn 2011 | 793 |
Frédéric Lasserre is the project leader of ArcticNet at the Environment, Development and
Society Institute of Laval University. The research for this paper was made possible by
grants from the Canadian Department of National Defence, ArcticNet, and the Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council.
Fast-receding summer sea ice in the Arctic has been documented and
making the headlines since 2007. The phenomenon, underlined by
scientists and the media since about the turn of the century, has triggered
speculation about the opening of much shorter sea routes linking Europe
via the eastern North American coast to Asia. The prospect of growing
shipping traff‌ic in Arctic waters, especially through the Northwest Passage
in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, or through the northeast passage north
of Russia, has fuelled rhetoric on the status of these Arctic routes and
controversy over the pace of such shipping growth. Few analysts question
the common belief that it is only a matter of time before new sea lanes will
be operational in the Arctic. This prospect is at the very heart of the ongoing
debate on security in the Canadian Arctic, for it raises the issue of control of
such navigation, and therefore of Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest
Frédéric Lasserre
Arctic shipping
From the Panama myth to reality
| 794 | Autumn 2011 | International Journal |
| Frédéric Lasserre |
Passage and the Canadian Arctic waters. It is this debate over control of
navigation, often depicted as something bound to experience out-of-hand
growth, that triggered the house of commons to vote in favour of a highly
debatable resolution in December 2009, renaming the Northwest Passage
the Canadian Northwest Passage, a move unlikely to attract any sympathy
elsewhere in the world.
But how much truth is there in the widely accepted notion that melting
sea ice, opening up Arctic channels in the summer, will lead to greatly
increased sea traff‌ic in the region? Shorter distances seem to be the main
factor considered by commentators, but shipping companies take many
other questions into account before their managers decide to develop Arctic
shipping. Indeed, shipping companies are in no rush to develop what they
perceive to be a risky and not necessarily prof‌itable route.
The year 2007 saw a record low in the extent of summer sea ice, and the
data show a trend towards an accelerated decline of the ice. Five years ago,
climatologists talked about a possible ice-free Arctic Ocean in the summer
by the year 2100, but models now suggest that this could happen as early
as 2015.1 Ever since Arctic-wide data for the extent of sea ice were computed
in 1979, a general declining trend has been observed. To be sure, there is
an inter-annual variability and it is diff‌icult from year to year to predict the
extent of the ice the following year, but the general trend def‌initely points
towards an accelerating decline.
Regression trends for shorter periods follow a steeper slope as time
goes by, indicating that the pace of melting has accelerated over the past
years. This means that the ice is melting faster and faster, with the prospect
of ice-free summers as early as 2015 in some models, underlining the real
possibility of little ice remaining in the summertime.
1 R. Kwok, “Exchange of sea ice between the Arctic Ocean and the Canadian Arctic
archipelago,” Geophysical Research Letters 33, no. L16501 (2006); S.V. Nghiem et al.,
“Depletion of perennial sea ice in the east Arctic Ocean,” Geophysical Research Letters
33, no. L17501 (2006); J. Stroeve and W. Maslowski, “Arctic sea ice variability during the
last half century,” in S. Bronniman et al., eds., Climate Variability and Extremes During
the Past 100 Years (New York: Springer, 2007); Jean-Claude Gascard, “2015, premier été
sans banquise?” Pôles Nord et Sud 1 (autumn 2008): 18-29; Quirin Schiermeier, “The
long summer begins,” Nature 454, no. 7202 (2008): 266-69.

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