Arctic Shipping
China Rediscovers the Northwest Passage

It was discovered more than 150 years ago, but the Northwest Passage could be surging to new relevance thanks to our planet’s changing climate. The shipping route across the north coast of North America has long held promise as a maritime connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but melting Arctic ice could make it a viable commercial shipping artery in the coming decades. As Reuters reports, China is particularly interested in possible savings generated by using the passage as a shortcut:

Shorter shipping routes across the Arctic Ocean would save Chinese companies time and money. For example, the journey from Shanghai to Hamburg via the Arctic route is 2,800 nautical miles shorter than going by the Suez canal. […]

“Once this route is commonly used, it will directly change global maritime transport and have a profound influence on international trade, the world economy, capital flow and resource exploitation,” ministry spokesman Liu Pengfei was quoted as saying.

An Arctic Ocean less covered in ice is going to uncover a host of new opportunities and challenges. It will produce new, shorter shipping lanes (and, greens might like to hear, will generate a considerable amount of shipping fuel savings), but with those will come the need for more naval patrols. Currently the United States acts as the global maritime peacekeeper, but our Navy is ill-prepared for a new Arctic mission: we only have a couple of icebreakers, a pitiful fleet when compared to Russia’s 40+.

Melting ice will also give oil and gas companies access to vast new deposits of hydrocarbons—the USGS estimates that the Arctic contains 15 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and nearly a third of its undiscovered gas. Here again we can anticipate the need for a more active naval presence, as well as more defined territorial boundaries (Russia and Canada have both been busy in recent years trying to redraw their offshore territories).

The Arctic may be the final terrestrial frontier we’ve got, and it’s going to have a much bigger role to play in global commerce this century. Beijing already seems to grasp this—let’s hope Washington does, as well.

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