The shipping shortcuts of the Northern Sea Route (over Eurasia) and the Northwest Passage (over North America) would cut existing oceanic transit times by days, saving shipping companies — not to mention navies and smugglers — thousands of miles in travel. … Taking into account canal fees, fuel costs, and other variables that determine freight rates, these shortcuts could cut the cost of a single voyage by a large container ship by as much as 20 percent — from approximately $17.5 million to $14 million — saving the shipping industry billions of dollars a year. The savings would be even greater for the megaships that are unable to fit through the Panama and Suez Canals and so currently sail around the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. Moreover, these Arctic routes would also allow commercial and military vessels to avoid sailing through politically unstable Middle Eastern waters and the pirate-infested South China Sea. An Iranian provocation in the Strait of Hormuz, such as the one that occurred in January, would be considered far less of a threat in an age of trans-Arctic shipping.
Arctic shipping could also dramatically affect global trade patterns. … As soon as marine insurers recalculate the risks involved in these voyages, trans-Arctic shipping will become commercially viable and begin on a large scale. In an age of just-in-time delivery, and with increasing fuel costs eating into the profits of shipping companies, reducing long-haul sailing distances by as much as 40 percent could usher in a new phase of globalization. Arctic routes would force further competition between the Panama and Suez Canals, thereby reducing current canal tolls; shipping chokepoints such as the Strait of Malacca would no longer dictate global shipping patterns; and Arctic seaways would allow for greater international economic integration. When the ice recedes enough, likely within this decade, a marine highway directly over the North Pole will materialize. Such a route, which would most likely run between Iceland and Alaska’s Dutch Harbor, would connect shipping megaports in the North Atlantic with those in the North Pacific and radiate outward to other ports in a hub-and-spoke system. A fast lane is now under development between the Arctic port of Murmansk, in Russia, and the Hudson Bay port of Churchill, in Canada, which is connected to the North American rail network.
In order to navigate these opening sea-lanes and transport the Arctic’s oil and natural gas, the world’s shipyards are already building ice-capable ships. The private sector is investing billions of dollars in a fleet of Arctic tankers. In 2005, there were 262 ice-class ships in service worldwide and 234 more on order. The oil and gas markets are driving the development of cutting-edge technology and the construction of new types of ships, such as double-acting tankers, which can steam bow first through open water and then turn around and proceed stern first to smash through ice. These new ships can sail unhindered to the Arctic’s burgeoning oil and gas fields without the aid of icebreakers. Such breakthroughs are revolutionizing Arctic shipping and turning what were once commercially unviable projects into booming businesses.
…In 1847, a British expedition seeking the fabled Northwest Passage ended in death and ignominy because Sir John Franklin and his crew, seeing themselves as products of the pinnacle of Victorian civilization, were too proud to ask the Inuit for help. At the height of its empire, the United States sometimes sees itself as invincible, too. But the time has come for Washington to get over its isolationist instincts and ratify UNCLOS, cooperate with Canada on managing the Northwest Passage, and propose an imaginative new multilateral Arctic treaty.
Washington must awaken to the broader economic and security implications of climate change. The melting Arctic is the proverbial canary in the coal mine of planetary health and a harbinger of how the warming planet will profoundly affect U.S. national security. Being green is no longer a slogan just for Greenpeace supporters and campus activists; foreign policy hawks must also view the environment as part of the national security calculus. Self-preservation in the face of massive climatic change requires an enlightened, humble, and strategic response. Both liberals and conservatives in the United States must move beyond the tired debate over causation and get on with the important work of mitigation and adaptation by managing the consequences of the great melt.