The northern passages

2009-09-18 00:00

EARLY next week two German container ships will arrive in Rotterdam from Vladivostok in the Russian Far East, having taken only one month to make the voyage. That’s much faster than usual — but then, they didn’t take the usual route down through the South China Sea, past Singapore, round the bottom of India, through the Suez Canal (pay toll here), across the Mediterranean and up the west coast of Europe. They just went around the top of Russia.

It’s the first commercial transit of the Northeast Passage by non-Russian ships, and it shortens the sea trip between East Asia and Europe by almost a third. It’s the melting of the Arctic sea ice that has made it possible, although for the moment it’s only possible for a couple of months at the end of the summer melt season, when the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover has shrunk dramatically. But it is a sign of things to come.

It’s the Northwest Passage, ano­ther potential short cut bet­ween Europe and East Asia that goes through the Canadian Arctic archipelago, that has got the attention in the past few years. Although ice-breakers have traversed it occasionally, no ordinary commercial ship has carried cargo through it. But when the Russians put on their little propaganda show at the North Pole two years ago, the Canadian government had kittens.

In 2007, Artur Chilingarov, a Russian scientist famous for his work in the polar regions and personal Arctic adviser to then-president Vladimir Putin, took a mini-sub to the North Pole and planted a Russian flag on the sea bed. Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper immediately flew to Iqaluit in the high Arctic and responded with a rabble-rousing speech.

“Canada has a choice when it comes to defending our sovereignty in the Arctic,” he said. “We either use it or lose it. And make no mistake: this government intends to use it.” He then announced a plan to build six to eight armed Arctic patrol vessels to assert Canadian control over the Northwest Passage and a deep-water naval base on Baffin Island to support them.

Canada’s dispute over sovereignty in the Northwest Passage is actually with the United States, not with Russia. The Russians have no interest in the Northwest Passage, since they have their own rival, the Northeast Passage. But the U.S. used to believe that the Northwest Passage could be very useful if it were ice-free, so Washington has long maintained that it is an inter­national waterway that Canada has no right to control.

Canada disputes that position, pointing out that all six potential routes for a commercially viable Northwest Passage wind bet­ween islands that are close together and indisputably Canadian. But Ottawa has never asserted military control over the Northwest Passage until now, because to do so would risk an awkward confrontation with the U.S. However, if you can pretend that you are building those warships and that naval base to hold the wicked Russians at bay, not to defy the U.S. …

That is Harper’s game, but in the end it will make no difference, because the Northwest Passage will never become a major shipping route. The Northeast Passage is just too much easier.

The problem for Canada is that all the routes for a Northwest Passage involve shallow or narrow straits between various islands in the country’s Arctic archipelago, and the prevailing winds and currents in the Arctic Ocean tend to push whatever loose sea ice there is into those straits. It is unlikely that cargo ships that are not double-hulled and strengthened against ice will ever get insurance for the passage at an affordable price.

Whereas the Northeast Passage is mostly open water (once the ice retreats from the Russian coast), and there is already a major infrastructure of ports and nuclear-powered ice-breakers in the region. If the distances are roughly comparable, shippers will prefer the Northeast Passage every time — and the distances are comparable.

Just look at the Arctic Ocean on a globe, rather than in the familiar flat-earth Mercator projection. It is instantly obvious that the distance is the same whether shipping between Europe and East Asia crosses the Arctic Ocean by running along the Russia’s Arctic coast, or weaving between Canada’s Arctic islands.

The same is true for cargo travelling between Europe and the west coast of North America. The Northwest Passage will never be commercially viable.

• Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Join the conversation!

24.com encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

 
/News

Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.




Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.