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Port Notes: Promising Route in Dispute

From the Desk of Capt. Jeff Monroe, MM, AMPE

Over the next several weeks, we will explore what is happening in the Arctic Region and how commercial shipping and port development may be impacted. Stay tuned.

The Northwest Passage, also commonly referred to as the “Northern Sea Route” or “Arctic Passage,” is a seasonally-accessible deep water (50 feet +) ocean route connecting Europe and Asia. A vessel enters it in the Bering Strait (between Alaska and the Russian Federation), and then proceeds to follow a winding route amongst the Canadian Arctic Archipelago until finally emerging into the Atlantic Ocean near the southwestern coast of Greenland. The Northwest Passage represents a substantially shorter transit time between East Asia and Northern Europe, which could result in economic gains for shipping lines able to make use of it.

Transiting the Northwest Passage is not without its risks and drawbacks. Declining ice coverage of the Northwest Passage has increased the amount of time, typically in high summer, that the Passage is navigable without the aid of an icebreaker. coverage remains a significant physical barrier to developing the waterway as a global trade route. There have been trans-Arctic voyages during the summer season along the Russian Federation’s Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passage in the Alaskan/Canadian territorial waters. Vessel transits normally required assistance by modern icebreakers, which lead merchant ships with reinforced hulls in convoy style.

Who, precisely, owns the Passage has long been a sticking point. The Canadian government asserts that the route through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago is Canadian internal waters, and that transit of any vessel is subject to a report to and approval from the Canadian Government. The United States, as well as several European nations and the Russian Federation, have taken the stance that the Northwest Passage is an International Strait: The US State Department categorized Canada’s claim to the Passage as “illegitimate.”

It remains to be seen how claims of sovereignty and physical barriers will evolve to shape the future of the Northwest Passage as a commercial shipping route. Tune in next week for the next installment of our series examining changes in the Arctic and their impacts on the port industry.

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