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The route to the North, a new maritime corridor between the Atlantic and the Pacific?

A world first

At the end of August, the world’s leading shipping company, Maersk, announced the dispatch of one of its ships, the Venta Maersk, from the port of Vladivostok in Russia to Saint Petersburg via the north route. It is the first container ship to take this route, which has long attracted the interest of merchant shipping companies. The Chinese company, Cosco, uses it to transport parts for wind turbines and, recently, Russia’s largest gas company, Novatek, sent its first special methane tanker along this sea lane to China.

What is the “Northern Route”?

The northern maritime route stretches from the Bering Strait to Norway. It has a major advantage over more traditional routes which pass via the Suez and Panama canals. The journey is some 6,000 kilometres shorter than by the Panama Canal and transport times are cut by one to two weeks for merchant ships heading from Europe to Asia.

The opening of this new route has been made possible by climate change. Warming in the Arctic is occurring twice as fast as in the rest of the world. The surface area occupied by ice in the Arctic Ocean, a territory covering 13 million km2 – 38 times that of France, has shrunk by about 40% in a quarter of a century. This evolution has made the two northern routes increasingly practicable. Tomorrow, they will perhaps be accessible for much of the year.

This possibility has increased the interest of the Arctic Circle countries (Russia, United States, Canada, Denmark, Norway) in this region which holds a large number of resources (gas, iron, zinc, diamonds, etc.) until now protected by its severe climate and remoteness. However, the impacts of this new attraction will be considerable on both the region’s fragile ecosystem and the geopolitical situation, since no international treaty has yet been signed to protect the Arctic

A possible threat to the Arctic

Does this mean that the Arctic, which will certainly become busier in terms of traffic, is the maritime route of the future? Perhaps not, since many obstacles must be overcome: the first of these are technical. The presence of ice, which varies according to area and period, and the darkness and extreme cold make navigation difficult. Boats must be equipped with special systems and be accompanied by icebreakers to ensure safe navigation.

National and international regulations are also a barrier. All these constraints add considerably to the cost of navigation. Finally, although raw materials (oil, gas and minerals) are less affected by delays caused by changing navigation conditions and could transit via the Northern Route, this is not the case for containers. As long as it used to export local resources rather than as a major shipping lane, it will not be a serious alternative to existing trade routes.

To learn more about this corridor:

read the book written by Erik Orsenna and Isabelle Autissier: “Going by the North – The new maritime route” – original publication published by Paulsen Editions – 2014

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