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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.
The Future of Arctic Shipping Along the Transpolar Sea
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 20
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 21
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.
The introduction of polar routes for flights between North America and the Far East at the end of
the 20
century had a lasting impact on air travel and allowed for more cost-effective flights between
the two continents by shortening flight times and reducing fuel costs. With the Cold War over and
the subsequent modernization of air traffic control systems in the former Soviet Union, the main
obstacles for routine transpolar flights had been removed. Today a number of rules and regulations
govern these increasingly popular flight routes. 30,000 feet below, across the Arctic Ocean, three
shipping routes have a comparable potential to transform commercial shipping in the 21