The Russia-controlled Northern Sea Route is one of the only ways ships can sail through the Arctic. Melting sea ice could open passages around it by 2035
20 June 2022
One of the few routes ships can take through the icy waters of the Arctic is controlled by Russia. However, by the middle of this century melting sea ice could open a route by which ships could avoid Russian-controlled waters.
The Northern Sea Route extends from the Kara Sea to the Bering Strait, hugging much of Russia’s 24,000-kilometre Arctic coastline. Traffic along the route today is modest: total Arctic shipping last year was equivalent to a day or two of traffic through the Suez Canal. But melting ice caused by a warmer climate could make sailing through the Arctic increasingly appealing. Some polar routes are half the length of regular routes.
One impediment to more international shipping through the Russian-controlled route are fees and restrictions. Amanda Lynch at Brown University in Rhode Island says one shipping operator told her, “We’re not afraid of icebergs. We’re afraid of icebergs of Russian paperwork.”
The legal rationale for Russia’s jurisdiction stems from a provision of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which gives countries jurisdiction over ice-covered waters within 200 nautical miles (300 kilometres) of their coast – an area known as the exclusive economic zone. Melting ice and rising seas have destabilised those boundaries, says Lynch.
Lynch and Charles Norchi at the University of Maine modelled how different climate change scenarios would alter the jurisdiction for Arctic shipping routes. Under all but the most well-controlled emission scenarios, they found that melting ice would open a route through international waters above the Northern Sea Route for at least a month out of the year, starting between 2035 and 2065 depending on the scenario.
Ships taking this route wouldn’t be subject to the restrictions imposed by Russia in the Northern Sea Route, and the route would also be navigable by regular open-water vessels without the help of icebreakers.
However, this assumes Russia and other states continue to honour international norms and laws at sea. “I don’t have great confidence that Russia will stop at the limits of their exclusive economic zone in what they see as their rights to enforce their jurisdiction over ice-covered waters,” says Scott Stephenson at RAND Corporation, a US think tank.
Beyond shipping, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has “dramatically changed” every Arctic institution, says Norchi, from scientific collaboration to search-and-rescue efforts.
In March, Russia was suspended from the Arctic Council, the group of Arctic nations largely responsible for making the region a beacon of international collaboration and peace even through the conflicts of the 20th century. “That’s now all up in the air,” says Stephenson.
Journal reference: PNAS, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2202720119
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