A voyage into the future

Governments and businesses have long dreamed of an “Arctic Passage” that would allow ships to traverse the northernmost reaches of the globe and thus drastically reduce travel times between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. That dream moves closer to reality this month as a Danish cargo ship sets out to traverse alone the Northern Sea Route, traveling from Russia’s east coast to St. Petersburg. The transit, if successful, will be a milestone — in good ways and bad — but it will still be more a symbol than a genuine transformation of commercial and geopolitical prospects.

The Venta Maersk has left Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East, commencing a voyage that will take it through the Bering Strait and across the Arctic to arrive in St. Petersburg by the end of September. The 42,000-ton vessel, which is carrying 3,600 containers of frozen fish, is specially built for the challenging Arctic environment: It has a stronger hull and protected rudders that will allow it to pass through ice floes up to 1 meter thick.

Maersk, the Danish shipping giant that built and owns the Venta Maersk, has no plans to regularly ply the Northern Sea Route. This is a one-off trial to “explore the operational feasibility of container shipping through the Northern Sea Route and to collect data.” The company acknowledges that it does not currently see the Northern Sea Route “as a commercial alternative to our existing network” and does not know when it might become one.

Nevertheless, the prospect of a northern route is tantalizing: It is seen as an alternative to travel through the Suez Canal and estimated to cut transport times from Europe to Asia by as much as two weeks. Last year, a Russian tanker became the first merchant ship to cross the Arctic without an icebreaker’s assistance. The transit from Norway to South Korea took just 19 days, a one-third reduction in the usual travel time.

Unfortunately, the opening of the Northern Sea Route — which is currently only feasible for about three months a year — is a product of climate change, and that has troubling implications for the rest of the planet. The Arctic has been warming at a rate at least twice that of the rest of the plant. As a result, from 1979 to 2017, sea ice declined by about 86,000 square kilometers per year, or 13.2 percent per decade compared with the 1981-2010 average. Summer ice has declined by about two-thirds over the past 35 years. If these trends continue, the region could be ice-free for the entire summer by mid-century. In March, sea ice in the Bering Strait hit its lowest levels in recorded history.

Japan has profound stakes in these developments. As the country’s Arctic policy notes, changes in that region have social, political and economic effects. Melting ice will accelerate global warming, which will lead to a rise in sea levels around the world — flooding our coastal cities — and increase the frequency of extreme weather events. Some estimates show that climate change could cost the Japanese economy as much as ¥17 trillion per year by 2100, reduce crop yields and put 1.3 million citizens at risk of flooding.

At the same time, Japan hungrily eyes the prospect of rich mineral and fish resources that it could use and reduce its reliance on imports from other parts of the world. One estimate puts those reserves at 90 billion barrels of petroleum (13 percent of the world total) and 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas (30 percent of the world total). Japan has helped build and is reportedly weighing increased involvement in Russia’s Yamal liquefied natural gas project, which originates in the Arctic region. Warmer temperatures make that project more viable, and Arctic melt offers a second route to export the gas. As the world’s largest consumer of LNG, that is an inviting opportunity.

Of course, Japanese businesses would profit from the opening of the Northern Sea Route and quicker trade with Europe. Finally, the rush to develop resources could create tensions among states, which could in turn prompt the deployment of military forces to the region.

Japan has endeavored to participate in Arctic governance. It has been an observer state in the Arctic Council since 2013. It is a member of the International Arctic Science Committee, and is the home to the National Institute of Polar Research, a university environmental research initiative. It also operates the Japanese Arctic Station in Norway that conducts environmental research. Finally, Japan is also a member of the Northern Forum, a group of subnational Arctic governments that study environmental protection and human security.

The Japanese government has developed an Arctic policy to ensure that it has a vision and a strategy for this increasingly important region. For many observers, such efforts are merely attempts to anticipate future developments. The voyage of the Venta Maersk suggests that the future is closer than many think.