A decade ago, geologists estimated that 30 percent of the world’s natural gas reserves and 13 percent of its petroleum deposits were trapped beneath the ice floes of the Arctic Circle, along with rare minerals and other valuable resources. As the rising temperature melts the icebergs, not only will those resources become accessible but, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in May, “Steady reductions in sea ice are opening new passageways and new opportunities for trade. This could potentially slash the time it takes to travel between Asia and the West by as much as 20 days. Arctic sea lanes could become the 21st century Suez and Panama Canals.”
A 2014 report by a UN committee found that about 80 percent of world trade is conducted via maritime shipping, and that the Suez Canal remains the chief maritime commercial route between Europe and East Asia. However, the widespread use of the northeastern route in the Arctic Ocean for shipping will reduce the distance between Europe and the Far East by one-third. Moreover, the northwestern route in the Arctic Ocean will shorten the distance between Asia and North America by almost 20 percent, creating an alternative to the Panama Canal. The primary beneficiaries of these developments will be the countries with ports on the North Sea and the Baltic Sea – in particular, Russia.
One study examined an extreme scenario – Arctic maritime routes operative year round. It predicted that about two-thirds of the trade that passes through the Suez Canal would be diverted to the new shipping routes. In any event, the melting of Arctic icebergs will increasingly open up commercial routes from Russia’s northern shores to East Asia, with vast implications for global trade. It’s easy to envision a large proportion of Chinese exports to Europe being shipped by way of Russia. This would also make it easier for Russia to ship its own goods, giving Moscow an advantage over Western competitors.
A boon for China
The icebergs are indeed melting. Last May, temperatures of 29 degrees Celsius were measured in the Arctic Ocean, 17 degrees higher than the summertime average in that region. June 2019 was the hottest month since the recording of temperatures began in 1880, before July arrived and broke that record, so the trend is clear: Earth’s climate is changing at the fastest pace since the dawn of humanity. Even if every country in the world made a complete shift to renewable energy, there would still be a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees. In light of this, many researchers believe that by 2024 the reduction in the quantity of ice in the Arctic Ocean will allow the free movement of ships carrying only light ice-breaking equipment.