Climate change is transforming shipping, particularly in the Arctic region where the marked retreat of sea ice is opening up new shipping lanes. This is true for both the Russian marginal seas and the waters of Alaska. In places where the sea ice is receding, fishing boats are able to venture into previously unexploited fishing grounds. Drilling ships or platforms can exploit natural gas and oil deposits that were inaccessible before. Cruise-line companies can offer cruises toward the North Pole, and shipping companies and merchant enterprises may save considerable time and expense by shipping their goods and merchandise via the shorter Arctic sea routes from northern Europe to north-east Asia. Shipping traffic in the Arctic region is still somewhat regionally focused, and a large proportion of the voyages are made in the summer and autumn, when the coastal waters are ice-free and the risk of accidents is smaller. But Russia in particular has been making a strong effort to develop the Northeast Passage through its Arctic coastal waters, which includes the Northern Sea Route, and thus make it more attractive for trans-Arctic voyages. New icebreakers are to keep the shipping routes open in the winter as well. The construction of ports and connected rail networks is expected to facilitate the transport of raw materials from the Russian Arctic. As a result, shipping traffic on the Northern Sea Route has already expanded immensely. In 2017, around 10.7 million tonnes of freight were transported by ship through Russian coastal waters. In 2018 it increased to 20.18 million tonnes, and in 2019 to around 31.5 million tonnes. However, for complete trans-Arctic voyages from Europe to Asia, or vice versa, the savings have been relatively minor so far because of the high additional costs associated with sailing through Arctic waters, such as ice-worthy ships and specially trained crews. Furthermore, some of the Russian marginal seas are so shallow that only smaller ships can travel through the ice-free passages, which drives up the costs per tonne of freight. Shipping experts therefore believe that shipping and trading companies will not invest in regular trans-Arctic service through the Northern Sea Route until profit-making transport is guaranteed. Models indicate that this will not be possible even for smaller freight ships until 2035, and for larger ships probably not before 2051. Until then the transport of goods from Europe to Northeast Asia will continue to traverse the much longer southern sea route, from the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean.
fig. 4.20 > Shipping traffic through the Northeast Passage has mainly been limited to regional transport so far, including the transportation of liquid gas from the Arctic to Europe or East Asia. But the further and earlier in the year the sea ice recedes, the more attractive it becomes as an alternative to the Suez Canal route. In January of 2021, for the first time, three LNG tankers made the passage in winter without the help of an icebreaker. Further voyages of this kind will follow.