Suez Canal Blockage Demonstrates Potential of Northern Sea Route

The recent debacle at the Suez Canal disrupted global shipping networks for almost a week, but one party was quite pleased – Russia. The Russian energy ministry was almost gleeful on 29 March, as they stated that the blockade of the canal “highlighted the safety and sustainability of its Northern Sea Route (NSR) and Russian energy pipelines.”

The flows of global capital were sent into disarray last week when the now-infamous Ever Given, one of the largest container ships in the world, got stuck in the Suez Canal. The 150-year old canal, allowing passage between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean, is essential for the thousands of ships yearly which utilize it for maritime travel between Asia and Europe. But for six days, it ground to a halt.

In response, Russia’s energy ministry has happily promoted their own alternative, the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The NSR, instead of bypassing through the Arabian Peninsula, offers an alternate route north of Siberia, skirting above Scandinavia and landing at whatever European destination necessary. The route “is highly secure and holds competitive positions in terms of transportation costs as well as by reliability in comparison to alternative routes,” according to the Energy Ministry (Reuters). For trips from East Asia, the NSR can shave off up to 4,000 nautical miles compared to the Suez Canal.

There are drawbacks, however. Most obviously, this region has a tendency to be quite cold. Historically, shipping has only proceeded in summer months when ices have melted (the first mid-Winter expedition was completed several years ago, but it requires special ships which can traverse ice). For this reason, the NSR saw a mere 33 million tonnes of goods flow through it last year, as opposed to over a billion through the Suez Canal.

The NSR is becoming more and more viable, however, for another fairly obvious reason. The sea ice above Siberia is rapidly melting. According to NASA, the minimum volume of sea ice (occurring around September) has declined at a rate of 13% per decade since 1981 (NY Times). Temperatures in the Arctic, specifically around Siberia, are rising faster than anywhere else in the world – according to the Russian meteorological service Roshydromet, at a rate of 1.2 degrees Celcius per decade (Barents Observer).

The accessibility of the NSR will only go up. Russia’s Energy Ministry expects shipping to hit 80 million tonnes in 2024, per Reuters, and year-round shipping to commence in the late 2020’s, according to the Financial Times. There are still safety concerns, however. The Russian military operates bases with search-and-rescue capabilities in the area, but the route is remote, icy, and extremely cold. Specialists interviewed in the New York Times noted that if disaster strikes – as it is prone to in that region – “it could get ugly.”

For now, the NSR is mostly used for Russian oil and natural gas transport. But their energy minister is correct in forecasting increased use. Although ships may as well take advantage of melting sea ice to traverse more efficient routes, it does set up a worrying incentive matrix for Russia. Between the Northern Sea Route and its vast holdings of sparsely inhabited arctic land, the northern superpower stands to gain quite a lot from the onset of climate change.

Although the Northern Sea Route could prove to be an efficient alternative for cross-Eurasian shipping, its role is negligible in assessing the calculus of climate change. It also poses a number of dangers to the ships and people that traverse it, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. With that said, as climate change continues to march forward, it’s something to monitor.