Malte Humpert and Andreas Raspotnik
Arctic sea ice is melting rapidly, and within the next decade polar warming may transform the region from an inaccessible frozen desert into a seasonally navigable ocean. The debate over Arctic shipping routes routinely revolves around the Northwest Passage (NWP) and the Northern Sea Route (NSR), but neglects to make mention of the Transpolar Sea Route (TSR). In the 20th century the use of Polar routes revolutionized international air travel. In similar fashion, the TSR bears the potential to transform the international commercial shipping industry in the 21st century. The authors will discuss the potential of the TSR as a future corridor of commercial shipping and conduct a comprehensive analysis of the climatic, legal, economic, and geopolitical context. The article will examine the feasibility of the TSR with respect to the continued decline of Arctic sea ice and analyze the economic potential of the route and its compatibility with existing trade patterns. The authors will also discuss the TSR's special status as the only Arctic shipping route outside of national territorial jurisdiction. Special emphasis will be given to China's emerging interest in Arctic shipping and its growing economic relationship with Iceland, which stands to gain massively if it were to develop into a transpolar shipping hub. The opening and future development of Arctic shipping routes will not only depend on favorable climatic conditions across the Arctic Ocean, but will also be influenced by a shift in economic and political spheres of influence. The development of the TSR and its significant economic potential may thus in part be determined by key geostrategic considerations as the center of economic and political power continues to shift towards Asia. This multi-faceted and interdisciplinary study aims to outline and elaborate on a range of key issues and challenges related to the future of the TSR.
Malte Humpert is Executive Director of the Arctic Institute. Andreas Raspotnik is an Analyst with the Arctic Institute and EXACT Marie Curie ITN Research Fellow with the University of Cologne.