Arctic no rival to Suez, not this century, says shipping expert

University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Lawson Brigham says as the ice retreats, Arctic shipping is expected to increase, but not in the way we might expect. (Photo courtesy of University of Alaska )

University of Alaska Fairbanks professor Lawson Brigham says as the ice retreats, Arctic shipping is expected to increase, but not in the way we might expect. (Photo courtesy of University of Alaska )

As the ice retreats, Arctic shipping is expected to increase. But if your idea of “Arctic shipping” is cargo carriers navigating a shortcut between Europe and Asia, you may want to choose a different image.

It’s not so much the thinning ice that will drive up ship traffic in the north. It’s the price of oil, says UAF professor Lawson Brigham.

“Profound changes in sea ice are not retooling global trade routes. Why? Because the place is ice covered, through the century, for seven and a half months. Partially or fully ice covered,” says Brigham, who chaired the Arctic Council’s Marine Shipping Assesment. He spoke today at a forum sponsored by Resources for the Future, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

Brigham, once the captain of a Coast Guard icebreaker, says, despite all the breathless accounts, whatever traffic the Arctic Ocean sees will be seasonal.

“That’s not what I read in the global media wherever I go,” he said. “I read, of course, that Mr. Putin is going to replace the Suez Canal with the Northern Sea Route. Well, I would say, good luck.”

It might be possible, depending on how many centuries Putin expects to remain president of Russia, Brigham quipped.

Rather than picturing container ships crossing the Arctic, think of all the vessels Shell sent north for its drilling season this summer. Brigham says global demand for Arctic resources is what will drive up ship traffic.

“Shell’s armada, I mean that’s marine shipping at the highest order: Twenty, 30 ships, all having very specialized operations to support one drilling site,” he said.

That kind of shipping, in support of Arctic industries, are a big deal, too, Brigham says. He mentioned the zinc exported from the Red Dog Mine.

“Some of the world’s largest, physically large bulk carriers, go from Kivalina to Southeast Asia or to smelters at B.C., so that’s a global connection, global commodity.”

Of course, there’s no Arctic port deep enough for those giant ships, so the zinc is lightered to them, on smaller vessels.

Nome Mayor Denise Michels said at the forum the easier access to the Arctic has brought changes to her community.

“We do see an increase in Arctic shipping,” said Michels, who lost her re-election bid yesterday. “We also see adventure tourism. We have kite-boarders. Jet skiers. We have people trying to cross the Bering Strait, which is 50 miles from the U.S. side to the Russian side if they don’t get arrested by the border guards.”

Nome will also host the Crystal Serenity next year, a 1000-passenger cruise ship expected to be the first of its class to travel the Northwest passage. Michels says making a deeper port at Nome isn’t just a local need. She called it an international priority.

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