In 1845, Sir John Franklin and his crew of 128 men vanished above Canada while searching for the Northwest Passage. Their fate remained a mystery until 1859, when a search party stumbled across their bones. The men had abandoned their ice-trapped ships and dropped to the frozen ground as they walked south. While Norwegian Roald Amundsen finally squeezed through in a three-year voyage completed in 1905, the first single-season transit wasn’t achieved until 1944.

The Arctic is undoubtedly still a treacherous region. But through climate change, we have unwittingly begun to tame it; a humble Swedish sailboat with no fortifications cruised the length of the Northwest Passage in 2012, including the McClure Strait, which had only been passable to icebreakers.

This summer’s Arctic sea ice minimum extent is the fourth lowest on record, NASA reported last month. Thinner, shrinking ice has already extended shipping seasons and made new areas accessible to oil and gas development. Royal Dutch Shell has taken advantage of this turn of events, reportedly sending more than 20 ships to one Arctic drilling site. While the new opportunities are seasonal, the melting may open the Northwest Passage and other routes to regular traffic by the middle of this century.

The new sea lanes could slash the time required to ship raw materials and goods. For example, the Northwest Passage shaves 7,000 km off the current route through the Panama Canal. The Northern Sea Route (NSR) that hugs Russia’s northern coast, as well as a possible Central Arctic Sea Route across the Arctic Ocean, could also reduce costs, increase ship turnover, and avoid the pirates of warmer climes.

The potential economic benefits of the shorter routes are attractive. But could this sea change in the shipping industry also help mitigate climate change by reducing emissions? Not according to a new study by Dr. Haakon Lindstad of the Norwegian Marine Technology Research Institute (MARINTEK) and his co-authors. Lindstad’s team recently assessed the costs, emissions, and footprints per ton of freight transported for both the NSR and the traditional sea lane through the Suez Canal.

The NSR, which is also known as the Northeast Passage, will likely be the first Arctic route to become ice-free year-round. The NSR runs from the Atlantic to the Pacific along the Russian Arctic coast, reducing the trip from Northern Europe to Japan by 40 percent, as compared with the Suez Canal route. As a result of climate change, the NSR is now ice-free in summer and fall, meaning that it’s free of continuous sheets of ice cover. Multi-year ice is also being replaced by thinner first-year ice. If these trends continue, climate change may extend the navigation season for the NSR by two to four months, the study reports.

The number of ships using this alternate route is small, but has already risen dramatically - from four in 2010 to 71 in 2013. Russia’s Northern Sea Route Administration attributed a downturn in 2014 to business circumstances unrelated to ice conditions. This spring, Russian Prime Minister Dmitriy Medvedev ordered plans to increase the amount of freight shipped through the NSR twenty-fold by 2030. China also has high hopes for the route, and is planning to release the first guidebook to sailing it.

"More than 90 percent of China's international trade is carried out by sea, so once the route is completely open, it will significantly facilitate the cargo shipping and trade sectors in China," Wang Hexun, director of the Donghai Navigation Safety Administration, told China Daily.

Speculations about future environmental impacts have arrived in tow. Traditional climate change assessments of the shipping industry have focused on carbon dioxide (CO2). However, vessels that use natural gas also tend to emit methane, an even more powerful greenhouse gas. In addition, most ships emit nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur oxides (SOx), and black carbon, a component of soot generated from incompletely burned fossil fuels. NOx and SOx create a cooling effect by forming atmospheric particles that scatter sunlight. But when black carbon blankets the reflective snow and ice at ground level, its darker color absorbs more solar radiation and accelerates melting. For this reason, an air pollutant emitted in one region may lead to a greater or lesser impact than the same pollutant in another region, depending on the extent of sea ice, amount of solar radiation received, and other factors.

The new study incorporates these additional emissions. The authors base their analysis on carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e), an expression of all greenhouse gases as a single number. This approach accounts for the fact that different pollutants work on different timescales. While CO2 persists in the atmosphere, other gases cause short-lived climate impacts, then dissipate after a couple of decades. For this reason, the team looked at both 20-year and 100-year scenarios. Given the precarious state of the Arctic, 20 years of climate impacts from oft-ignored pollutants could be significant, sending the region over its tipping point, Lindstad writes. The shorter timeframe also aligns with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s recommended 85-50 percent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to 2000 levels by 2050. The time interval used may change the outcome entirely; while the study reports a lower footprint for the NSR over 100 years, it has a greater impact on the 20-year scale, regardless of fuel type used.

The theory that using a shorter route will lower emissions sounds reasonable, but the realities on the ground (or sea) are more complex. Ships that traverse the region's shallow waters are typically smaller, necessitating more trips to carry the same amount of cargo, Lindstad writes. Since they must still follow icebreakers through free-floating ice, part of the journey occurs at low power, when engines are at their least efficient and most polluting. Finally, NSR emissions feed directly into a vulnerable area. Black carbon has a much more dramatic effect on the amount of sun reflected by the surface in the Arctic than in other locations. The authors used region-specific assessments of each pollutant to account for this variation.

Ultimately, the opening of the NSR to regular traffic will not help mitigate climate change, “since the additional impact of emissions in the Arctic more than offset the effect of shorter voyages,” Lindstad writes. It can be an economically preferable choice, however. The NSR has a significantly lower cost per ton of goods transported (18 USD) than the Suez route (29 USD) for Panamax dry bulkers. These vessels are used in trades between Asia and Europe, and make up a large share of the ships that have passed through the NSR over the last five years. The figures includes ship construction, fuel and operating costs at sea, and the expenses associated with loading, off-loading, and waiting for icebreakers in port.

Still, the NSR and other potential Arctic routes have significant drawbacks. Ships usually need additional insurance and an icebreaker escort, which the Council on Foreign Relations estimates at $400,000. Russian control of the NSR and the potential for rate hikes is troubling to some industry executives. While Russia is working to build infrastructure along the NSR, Arctic routes are still risky, due to the lack of search and rescue capability.

"Companies are expected to spend $100 billion in the next decade" to get natural resources out of the Arctic, Isaac Arnsdorf of Bloomberg News told NPR. "[T]here's not much there to begin with so there's a lot of basic infrastructure that you need to start with," he continues. The harsh environment "makes a lot of investors concerned about potential losses if these projects don't work out or if there's an accident, if there's a catastrophe like the Exxon Valdez."

The inevitability of weather delays will also filter out some types of traffic. For example, the NSR will more likely be used for raw materials than consumer goods that must meet tighter shipping deadlines.

Most experts agree that it will likely be decades before climate change makes it possible for ships to begin travelling the new routes on a regular basis. When that happens, traffic may be less than projected, perhaps insulating the Arctic against worst-case emission scenarios.

Malte Humpert, executive director at the Arctic Institute, agreed with this assessment in a statement to Petroleum Economist.

“[W]hile climate change will, over the coming decades, transform the frozen north into a seasonally navigable ocean, Arctic shipping routes will not become a new silk road," and won’t make for smooth sailing anytime soon.


Companies to Watch

Mitsui O.S.K. Lines, Ltd. (TYO:9104) – A Japanese company providing international shipping services. In July 2014, Mitsui signed shipbuilding contracts with Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering Co., Ltd. in Korea to build new ice-class ships for operations along the Northern Sea Route. The company is rated a hold by analyst consensus, according to Reuters.

Cosco Shipping Co., Ltd. (SHA:600428) – This state-controlled Chinese company became the first to sail a container ship through the Northern Sea Route in the summer of 2013. The company, which mainly ships cargo, is considered an outperform.

Teekay Corporation (NYSE:TK) – Teekay primarily transports crude oil and natural gas. The company also provides offshore oil services. Teekay is currently an outperform, according to Reuters Finance. Last year, the company ordered six ARC-7 ice-class liquefied natural gas vessels designed for the harsh conditions and navigational challenges of the Northern Sea Route.


Kate Dougherty is a freelance writer and geographer specializing in stories about where science, technology, and the environment meet. Her work has been published by Earth Island Journal Online, Next City,, and the American Society for Mechanical Engineers. Prior to her freelance career, she was contracted to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency libraries for six years, and also served as Assistant Professor/Geosciences and Maps Librarian at the University of Arkansas.