February 2022 Shipping Update: Is Arctic Shipping the Future Alternative?

In the past two years, the shipping industry has seen its share of challenges. From a global shipping container shortage to port congestion and a days’ long backup off the coast of California, we’ve been dealing with a lot—as an industry and consumers. But experts now feel there could be something of a solution coming our way via Arctic shipping.

The Situation: Russia Is Beating Other Countries to Arctic Shipping

Russia is currently exploring a new option for getting shipments from point A to point B: Arctic shipping. Labeled the Northern Sea Route (NSR), the passageway is between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans along the northern coast of Russia, just outside of the Arctic Ocean. The route was first traversed in the 11th century, but it took until 1878 for a successful voyage to be completed by Swedish geologist Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, who nonetheless got stuck along the way and had to wait for the ice to melt to continue.

Today, the route is being reconsidered as an alternative to the Suez Canal, especially in light of the backup there last year. Russia’s goal is to have the route running year round by 2023–2024. China is also on board with this option, considering it a new Silk Road.

When available year round, the new route will enable Arctic shipping to compete with the Suez Canal, but a lot of work needs to be done first, including developing the infrastructure to ensure the NSR is passable, even in the coldest months.

Projection: Artic Waterways May Soon Be Ice Free

While Russia and China may have a goal of developing infrastructure to have the NSR fully open in the next two years, natural factors are also at play. Scientists are now predicting that the Arctic waterways will be ice free by 2035. If and when the route is fully passable, that option could shave up to 20 days off the shipping time to cross the globe here instead of going through the Suez Canal. But heading this direction is still an iffy endeavor.

For Arctic shipping to become standard, much will need to occur. With weather patterns as they are now, the seaways can be unpredictable: sunny one day and ice covered the next. And while the possibility of global warming creating a new shipping route is advantageous to the shipping industry, it is a detriment to the native peoples and animals living in the Arctic Circle.

Still, Artic shipping has increased 25% between 2013 and 2019, a telling sign of what may be to come.

Recommendation: Don’t Pack Your Bags Just Yet

Two major shippers, Maersk and MSC, are not ready to jump on the Arctic shipping route just yet. They are concerned about unpredictability of the area, along with environmental degradation. The US and Canada are also treading lightly on the idea of taking a northern passageway for shipping.

To make Artic shipping possible, a special ship, an icebreaker, is needed. These ships are designed to break through even the worst ice and are used today to navigate frozen waterways, including the Baltic Sea, Saint Lawrence Seaway, Great Lakes, and the Northern Sea Route. Even with their extra power, reinforced hull, and ice-breaking design, they still have challenges pushing through ice during winter.

In addition to the Northern Sea Route, there are two other potential ways to cross the Arctic, including the Northwest Passage and the Transpolar Sea Route. The Northwest Passage runs across the top of the US and Canada and is passable via icebreaker in summer months, whereas the Transpolar Sea Route goes nearly straight across the Arctic and is not a true option since the ice there is so thick.

When it makes sense to send shipments via Arctic shipping, we will schedule those routes; however, for most of our clients, the standard routes remain their best options.

Stay Informed about the Future of Shipping

No matter what or where you’re shipping, whether across the North Pole or over the hills to Grandma’s house, you need a freight forwarder with your best interests in mind. At Cyclone Shipping, we stay in the loop so we always know what’s happening and what’s down the road. Trust us for all your artic shipping needs (and everything else!).

Contact us to learn more.