The blockage of the Suez Canal and the 12% of world cargo trade (1 billion tons of cargo per year) that flows through it raises the profile of an obvious and much shorter alternative that global warming is making increasingly attractive.
Arctic sea ice continues to retreat at a very rapid clip (currently running below the 2012 all-time minimum). Bad for the polar bears – good for global commerce.
Meanwhile, despite the challenges of being a gas station that produces no value added products, Russia is in the midst of a nuclear icebreaker construction spree that will make the Northern Sea Route navigable for most of the year. The LK-60Ya class includes three ships – Arktika, Sibir, and Ural – the first of which was commissioned in 2020, with the next two to follow this year and in 2022, respectively. There will eventually be five of them. This 33,540 ton displacement ship comes packed with a RITM-200 reactor generating 60 MW of propulsion power that can travel at 22 knots through clear water and is able to break ice up to 2.6 meters thick (vs. 2.2 meters for the Soviet-era Arktika class). There are plans for a series of even bigger icebreakers called the LK-120Ya (Leader) class, which will have propulsion power of 120 MW, travel at 24 knots in clear water and at 10-12 knots in 2 meter thick ice, and should have enough power to traverse any part of the Arctic Ocean all year round.
Even before this, Arctic shipping has been booming. Ports along the Northern Sea Route have seen a quadrupling of cargo since 2003 from 26.4 million tons in 2003 to 104.8 million tons by 2019 (if slipping to 96 million tons last year due to Corona). They now handle as much cargo every year as the entire Baltics, which have stagnated for more than a decade. Northern Sea Route freight routes began in the 1930s and reached a peak of 6.6 million tons of cargo transported in 1987, then declined to 1.5 million in the 1990s. In the past decade, though, they began a rapid recovery, reaching 4 million tons by 2014, 10 million tons in 2017, 20 million tons in 2018, 30 million tons by 2019, and 31.5 million tons in 2020. This represents a fivefold increase over peak Soviet rates, and unlike in the Soviet era, these are done under market conditions (i.e. we know they are profitable). Putin has set the goal of increasing this further to 80 million tons by 2025 and 120 million tons by 2030.
However, the most striking increase has been in Northern Sea Route transits, i.e. complete passages from Europe to East Asia. Though overall volumes remain low, the rate of increase has been astronomical (albeit with some sharp year to year variation). Though these began in the Soviet era, volumes were low at no more than a couple dozen ships carrying 200,000 tons per year. Meanwhile, after a false start in the early 2010s, there were 62 ships that made the journey in 2020 carrying 1.28 million tons of cargo. This is still only marginally above 0.1% of what passes through the Suez Canal, but given the much shorter distances (35%, or 5,000 km less) and no congestion issues, it is clearly the much more preferable option if the sea ice problem could be solved – which global warming and new generations of nuclear icebreakers are doing. So another way of looking at it is that there is huge scope for growth here. There is no reason why we shouldn’t see multiple OOM increases in NSR shipping up to the point of matching and even exceeding traffic along the Suez/Malacca route.
I called many of these developments in my 2012 article ARCS of Progress – the Arctic World In 2050. The cancelation of the natural resource supercycle in 2014 interrupted the rosier projections. Nonetheless, we seem to be getting back on track. The governor of Murmansk Dmitry Dmitriyenko’s prediction that cargo transport in the Northern Sea Route will increase tenfold by 2020 has come to pass – if anything, he was overly pessimistic (predicted 19 million tons, reality: 31.5 million tons).