For years, commentators have talked up the prospect of sending commercial vessels through the famous Northwest Passage, as melting Arctic ice opens a new trade route from the North American east coast to Asia. In 2014, a milestone was reached when the MV Nunavik, a strengthened cargo vessel, took 23,000 tons of nickel through the passage to Bayuquan, China, without an icebreaker accompaniment. Talk of the passage soon becoming a route to rival that of the Panama Canal went into overdrive.
‘In the public debate it sounds very promising and very realistic that soon there will be a lot of traffic,’ says Christian Haas, Canada Research Chair for Arctic Sea Ice Geophysics. ‘But experts doubt the reliability and feasibility of shipping through the Northwest Passage.’
Haas is lead author of a new study by York University, Toronto, where the thickness of winter Arctic ice was measured in 2011, and again in 2015. They concluded that even with summer Arctic ice shrinking, the ice thickness remains such that it could be an estimated 40 years before becoming a viable trade route.
However, ice thickness is only one issue. ‘The global shipping industry doesn’t work only on distance savings,’ says Malte Humpert, Executive Director of The Arctic Institute. ‘What it needs is schedule reliability, use of the largest ships to reduce costs, network economics, low insurance rates, steady speeds, et cetera. This isn’t possible in the Arctic. I’d be surprised if we saw more than 50 ships pass through it annually by 2025. In comparison Suez has 18,000 and Panama 15,000 annually.’
This article was published in the November 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.