Arctic Shipping Chills in 2014

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The year 2014 has proved to be a slow one for Arctic shipping. Just 31 ships sailed between Europe and Asia across the Northern Sea Route, and 22 did part of the route. That’s down from a total of more than 70 in 2013.

Malte Humpert, executive director of the Arctic Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says this year has served as a reality check on some of the over-heated Arctic predictions of recent years.

“I think 2014 kind of shows that development and Arctic shipping may be further off than we might have thought a few years ago, that the ice is not melting as quickly as previously predicted,” he said.

Humpert says shipping is a good indicator of economic activity on the ground in the Arctic. 2007 and 2012 were low ice years, fuelling excitement about Arctic resource extraction, container shipping, even large-scale tourism. Then this year, the ice rebounded a bit. Not only did the number of ships drop off, but Humpert says the purpose changed, too.

“Last year (2013) we had a lot of oil carriers, we had one LNG carrier, we had iron ore, we had timber – a lot of natural resources,” he said.  “And this year we had actually a few passenger ships, we had heavy lift vessels so that indicates there was building equipment, like an oil platform being transported into the Russian Arctic.”

Humpbert closely watches the Northern Sea Route. (That’s the course over the top of Russia – meaning, if you’re coming from Asia, you go through the Bering Strait and hang a left.) It’s not just ice that’s putting a damper on Arctic activity. Humpert says Russia is feeling the effects of sanctions, resulting from its move on Ukraine. That has scaled back Russian oil activity, and low oil prices haven’t helped. Humpert says he hears a new tone among Arctic forecasters these days.

“I think, in general, the pendulum of excitement and reality, it might be swinging back to reality a little bit,” he said.

Joël Plouffe, a Montreal-based managing editor of the journal Arctic Yearbook, has noticed the same thing. Plouffe says the opening of the Arctic has been oversold as a major and immediate boom, but it remains a region where access is limited and development expensive.

“This is the reality. The boom is not there. And whatever will happen will take years and years and years,” he said.

Still, he does see some exciting developments this year, starting with the Northwest Passage. (That’s the course you’d be on if you went north through the Bering Strait and turned right, over Alaska and Canada.) It sees much less traffic than the Northern Sea Route, but this year, Plouffe says, one transit was a commercial ship travelling without a separate icebreaker.

“The shipping company called Fednav was the first shipping company to actually take some minerals out of the Canadian Arctic and take them out to China using the Northwest Passage, and using drones to help them in Arctic waters,” Plouffe said. “So that’s something new and this pattern will continue.”

And, he says, this year saw the first shipments of oil from Russia’s Arctic waters. Plouffe says expectations of a sudden boom have helped focus some American attention on the Arctic, at least in Congress and among some journalists. Now Plouffe hopes that focus can be expanded to concern for people –the high energy bills in rural Alaska, for instance, and the safety of travel in the region.

“It might not be as sexy as talking about the big boom, but there’s a lot of work to be done to explain to people that eventually what will happen in the North when there will be less ice there will be more human activity,” he said. “So this is not a boom. This is just more human beings travelling in the north and being more vulnerable, also.”

Both Plouffe and Humpert say climate change is transforming the Arctic, even if the pace of its impact on shipping has been over-hyped at times. Humpert likened it to the Gold Rush, which forever changed California, although many reports at the time of easy riches proved to be exaggerations.