Arctic Yearbook 2012
The Future of Arctic Shipping Along the Transpolar Sea Route
Trans-Arctic shipping, regardless of the actual route used, will not serve as a substitute for existing
shipping routes, but will instead be supplemental and provide additional capacity for a growing
transportation volume. For the foreseeable future, the limited seasonal window for trans-Arctic
voyages must be taken into account in any projections. Nonetheless, the development of Arctic
offshore hydrocarbon resources and related economic activities will result in an improved integration
of the Arctic economy in global trade patterns.
The Arctic region has become increasingly politicized, affecting its future development and
influencing the policy decisions of Arctic countries. The Arctic Ocean’s potential economic and
geostrategic importance has also begun to attract the attention of non-Arctic actors, who are in the
process of defining their interests and intentions. The People’s Republic of China, in addition to the
European Union (EU), is arguably the most important non-Arctic actor and will be instrumental to
the development and future of the TSR.
In 2011 China surpassed the EU and the United States (US) to become the world’s largest exporter
(CIA, 2012) and its gross domestic product (GDP) (purchasing power parity) is expected to surpass
that of the US by 2019 (Euromonitor, 2010). China’s growing demand for natural resources and its
economic dependency on foreign trade
along a limited number of trade routes have led Chinese
officials on a search to overcome this strategic vulnerability by securing new lanes of communication.
Shipping routes across the Arctic Ocean may feature prominently in China’s effort to diversify its
portfolio of trade routes.
With a length of approximately 2,100 nautical miles (nm) (as cited in Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Iceland, 2007: 7) the TSR is the shortest of the three Arctic shipping routes. While the NWP and the
NSR are considered coastal routes, the TSR represents a mid-ocean route across or near the North
Pole. Due to climatic uncertainty and constantly changing navigational and sea ice conditions, the
TSR does not follow one single specific track but exists along a multitude of possible navigational
routes. The TSR represents a variable non-coastal sea-lane across the Arctic Ocean, including a route
closer to the NSR but outside of the Russian Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Seasonal and annual
variations in sea ice conditions will define the exact range of possible shipping lanes along the TSR.
The authors will conduct a multi-level risk assessment based on Schøyen and Bråthen (2011) to
overcome the difficulty of making sound and reliable projections involving highly uncertain variables.
In order to arrive at a comprehensive analysis regarding the future development of the TSR this
article will describe environmental and climatic uncertainties; outline the current international legal