Last summer two German freighters travelled from Rotterdam to Siberia, hauling 3,500 tons of cargo. The ships used the Northern Sea Route, a once-impassable route along Arctic ice.
“Compared to the traditional route through the Suez Canal, using the Northern Sea Route can save up to one third of voyage distance,” said Beluga Shipping CEO Niels Stolberg. “Saving voyage distance means saving voyage time, which means saving bunker consumption, which means saving money. That’s an easy calculation.”
Stolberg’s two freighters were, in fact, blazing the trail for a new business boom. “Climate change is melting the Arctic sea ice,” explains Michael Byers, professor of International Law and Politics at the University of British Columbia. “This makes previously inaccessible areas accessible to shipping and oil exploration.”
It has also made the countries that own the Arctic much more interested in the icy continent. With the continent’s growing business importance, these countries — Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway and the United States — have started staking out their territorial claims much more vocally.
“Recently a Russian politician put a Russian flag on the North Pole and claimed it for Russia,
and soon after Canada’s election, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to stand up to the United States over the Arctic,” notes Byers. “In the past, such grandstanding was without risk, but climate change has made it problematic.”
In the meantime, companies like Beluga Shipping are eager to get down to business. “Our long-term goal is to use the Northern Sea Route every season,” says Stolberg.
That’s bad news for polar bears. “Using the Arctic for commercial purposes will exacerbate climate change,” says Greenpeace campaigner Richard Page. “The Arctic has an extremely vulnerable ecosystem, and polar pears are already starving as a result of rising temperatures.”