Port Notes: Going Over the Top
From the Desk of Capt. Jeff Monroe, MM, AMPE
After a brief break, we are continuing our exploration of what is happening in the Arctic Region and how commercial shipping and port development may be impacted. Stay tuned.
If weather and ice pack weren’t a factor, how would you most efficiently send a container from Shanghai to Rotterdam by marine vessel?
Directly over the North Pole, of course.
Obviously, at no point in the history of shipping has this been a practical plan of action: there is a giant pack of ice at the north pole and navigating through it is exorbitantly costly. Ships have to be purpose-built for transiting the waters at the top of the world, with reinforced hulls and the ability to cut through ice. At present, transiting the “Transpolar Passage” or “Central Passage,” a sea route that runs directly through the North Pole, is impractical.
However, the polar ice cap is melting, and shipping routes at the top of the world are beginning to open. Routes that travel over the North Pole might be open for ice classed and ice-breaking cargo ships by 2030 if these warming trends continue. Ice classed vessels are the key to using the routes and these specialty vessels, built to IMO specifications, have the ability to operate in sea ice up to four feet thick. It is estimated that by 2060, or possibly by as early as 2045, the reduction of Arctic sea ice might permit non-ice classed ships to journey over the North Pole and travel the northernmost routes. The passage between Europe and Asia is estimated to average around 20 to 25 days compared to transits using the Panama Canal (40-45 days) or Suez Canals (50-55 days) depending on the port pairs. Ports that depend on seasonal supplies may develop year round calls from vessels, and the potential for Arctic tourism on cruise ships may expand considerably.
Given the increased interest in commercial vessels transiting the region, there has been only slight interest by ocean carriers to develop concrete plans for using these routes. For the near term, most vessels transiting the region are expected to be port-destined commodities limited to natural resource development and regional trade. Extraction of natural resources is dependent on commodity prices with that extraction based on the total cost of processing and transport. Materials based on current surveys include oil and gas, gold, nickel, zinc, palladium, silver, copper, platinum, and high-grade ore. Aside from a few trial transits, commercial ship traffic will most likely be tied to global demand for those resources.