The Arctic is melting faster than anyone predicted. The World Meteorological Organization announced that ice melt in the Arctic reached a new record in 2012 when an area of ice larger than the continental United States vanished between the months of March and September. The seasonal thaw contributed to a new record in regional shipping as well, with more vessels than ever hauling cargo between Europe and Asia across the top of the world. And international energy companies spent record time searching for oil and gas beneath the frigid waters. But in spite of these trends, the Arctic probably won’t become a bustling hub of commercial activity anytime soon. Setting realistic expectations for the region will pay dividends to U.S. policymakers charged with figuring out how to protect America’s Arctic interests.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the commercial shipping industry is poised to be the biggest Arctic winner. Like the man-made Suez and Panama Canals, which transformed world trade in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, a thawing Arctic promises a natural shortcut for ships that would cut the cost and time required to ply the world’s oceans. Arctic passage would cut transit time between Rotterdam and Shanghai by more than 20 percent, allowing shippers to save on bunker fuel costs and avoid transit routes riddled with piracy that have raised insurance premiums and the total cost of doing business. With more than 90 percent of global trade still carried by ship, the follow-on savings would be significant.
But the Arctic Age may turn out to be a frozen fantasy. While a record number of ships transited the Arctic in 2012 -- 46 vessels compared to 34 in 2011 -- regional shipping is dwarfed by that in other parts of the world: Nearly 15,000 ships passed through the Panama Canal in 2011; another 18,000 ships crossed the Suez Canal the same year. Meanwhile, most of the ships passing through the Arctic in recent years are designed with hardened hulls and navigation equipment proven capable of surviving the region’s harsh environment. Most of the world’s shipping fleet, however, remains untested for such sea routes.