With the melting of Arctic sea ice as a result of climate changes, there has been an intensification of interest, and use, of Arctic waters for shipping. This article seeks to do two things: first, define and compare the transport passages of the Arctic Ocean on the basis of their geographical features, natural conditions, political significance, and legal characteristics displaying their distinctions, interrelations and eventual overlaps focusing on the Northeast Passage, of which the Northern Sea Route is the main part; the Northwest Passage; and the Trans Polar Passage. And second, to discuss how Arctic passages connect or may connect to world markets through transport corridors in southern waters. The article concludes by examining the more likely prospects for Arctic shipping in the short, medium and long term.
Willy Østreng is President of the Norwegian Scientific Academy for Polar Research.
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.
Climate change has spurred global interest in the Arctic as an arena of new potential for petroleum and mineral exploration. The prospect of increased access to resources has informed scenarios depicting the region's future as a theater of geopolitical aggression. Militarization has been increasing in the Arctic despite the existence of multilateral region-building institutions, such as the Arctic Council. However, existing international frameworks for resolving maritime border disputes (UNCLOS) and emerging opportunities for collaborative resource development indicate that cooperation is more likely to occur than conflict among Arctic states in the coming decades. Contrary to recent media tropes signaling an impending Arctic 'Great Game' for resources, many oil and gas deposits are providing the impetus for international cooperation constituted through development and implementation of shared infrastructure. I invoke the term 'collaborative infrastructures' to describe a new paradigm of state and private collaboration within which Arctic actors are pursuing mutual economic and environmental interests. These collaborations work to address an imbalance between despotic and infrastructural power in the Arctic, manifest in a rise in post-Cold War militarization and nationalist rhetoric. The benefits to society conferred by infrastructural power are a powerful incentive for long-term cooperation among Arctic states. Even as states unilaterally increase their military presence, they are forging multilateral agreements to promote security and resource development at local and regional scales.
Scott Stephenson is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Geography at UCLA.