Arctic Sea Lanes: the effect of climate change on shipping

Emma Hunter is a third year War Studies student with a particular interest in naval warfare. In this article, she looks at the little discussed effects of climate change on shipping lanes in the Arctic, and how governments will have to plan for this in the future.


The Earth’s ice is melting. A biproduct of burning fossil fuels, the impact of humanity’s preferred means of procuring energy is becoming clearer and clearer every day. Some may deny it, but the evidence points towards global warming, a significant effect of which is ice caps across the globe melting.[1] The Okjökull glacier was Iceland’s first to disappear completely, and a funeral was held for it by scientists and Icelanders, keen to commemorate their loss by spreading the news across the world.[2] More famously, in 1991, Ötzi ‘the Iceman’ was discovered in the Alps, a 5,300 year old corpse killed by a sudden blow to the head.[3] Significantly, this reveals that this particular glacier in the Ötztal Alps is melting at a rate which pushes it back farther than it has been in 5,000 years. Despite worldwide attempts to protect the environment, events such as these are sadly still taking place.


This is all, of course, tragic news for the state of our globe. However, one little discussed effect of this phenomenon is the geopolitical consequences for polar regions, as melting ice expands shipping lanes in the Arctic. Once governed by fierce icebreakers and deemed too risky for ordinary ships due to the obvious dangers, these waterways could soon be becoming regular trade routes. Icebreaker ships have been heavily relied upon throughout history to clear the way for conventional vessels. Russia led the way in the 1950s with the production of nuclear powered icebreakers, and to this day possesses the greatest fleet of icebreakers in the world.[4] Their fleet consists of 46 vessels, with a further 11 in construction and 4 planned, which puts Britain’s single RRS Sir David Attenborough to shame.[5] This is naturally due to the fact that British demand for such a vessel is low – RRS Sir David Attenborough is used for research purposes alone, whilst the geography of Russia demands frequent use of icebreakers.


Now, however, the importance of such vessels is being called into question, as melting ice caps provide a greater surface area for conventional ships to sail, resulting in a lower need for a specialist ship to clear the way. In 2014 the Canadian Nunavik travelled unescorted from Canada to China, the first of its kind to do so.[6] The ship used the Northwest Passage, a route to the north of Canada previously too dominated by ice to be a viable trade route. The Canadian government is understandably pleased with such a progression, as trading ships travelling from the East Coast of the USA to Asia may begin to use this route and are likely to begin stopping in Canada along the way. In this way, states are experiencing further maritime freedom, and climate change is redrawing the commercial contours of the world.


Professor Smith from the University of California has suggested that by 2050 this route and the Northern Sea Route (along the north of Russia) will be accessible to all conventional ships during summer months.[7] This will cut down journey times significantly and make trade between the US and Asia a far more efficient system. Meanwhile, Russia is still developing nuclear powered icebreakers, as these changes, while inexorable, are still not immediate. As such, the Federation’s European ports such as St Petersburg and Arkhangelsk are still locked in ice for significant parts of the year and still necessitate an icebreaker.[8] However, environmental developments may help Russia realise one of its key aims geopolitically – that of a warm water port in its home territory. Historically, warm water ports have been a driving force in Russian policy, as they sought control of parts of the coast of the Black Sea in the 19th Century and angled towards a Mediterranean port during the First World War.[9] As warming temperatures open up the possibilities of new, safe shipping routes across their northern coast, the potential benefits of a new ‘Polar Silk Road’ stretching from China to the Arctic has not been lost on the Russian Federation.[10]


To add to this situation, the thawing ice is giving new access to reserves of oil and gas in the Arctic region, as well as resources such as zinc and iron. China in particular are keen to boost their investment and presence in the region as a result.[11] Meanwhile, President Trump, whilst reluctant to accept that climate change is happening, is keen to take advantage of the effects of it. In August this year, he attempted to purchase Greenland from Denmark, as Mike Pompeo outlined to him the future competition over the Arctic and the potential influence Greenland will demand.[12]  The US, Canada, Russia and Norway have all laid claims on the route leading from Alaska to the Arctic so far, and this is certainly a developing issue which is sure to see further international attention in the future.


Climate change is having a devastating effect on nature; however, it is also important to recognise its geopolitical implications. Rising temperatures and the subsequent melting of ice caps has already begun to significantly increase the importance of shipping lanes to the north of Canada and Russia, as these are set to be accessible by all ships in the next 30 years. This will create shorter trade routes which no longer rely on the Suez Canal, and will increase the international importance of both Russia and Canada. As impassable ice caps continue to melt, the international traffic of Arctic shipping can only increase, drawing global attention northwards. As ice melts, water rises, and resources are discovered, the Arctic will certainly be a region to watch in future.















Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s