In August 2017, the Russian icebreaking LNG carrier Christophe de Margerie achieved a record-setting transit of the Northern Sea Route (NSR). The vessel sailed the 2,193 nautical mile NSR in just six days, twelve hours, and fifteen minutes.

Such an accomplishment boosted the hopes for the Arctic to become a viable alternative to normal maritime routes through the Suez Canal. This development however, shows also potential areas of concern for future maritime activity in the region and could establish a dangerous precedent if improvements to regional governance are not made.

Navigation in the Arctic poses dangers to vessels navigating the region, as while sea ice coverage is decreasing, Arctic remains a hostile environment. Intense cold obstructs the functionality of machinery and sets risks to sailors and passengers onboard vessels. Moreover, ice that does not melt challenges even icebreakers seeking passage. The increasingly open water of the High North has also amplified the unpredictability of ice floes, as the melting of ice can cause large blocks of multiyear ice to flow into potential sea lanes. Ice floes lack predictability and conditions vary seasonally.

The unpredictability of the region raises serious concerns about long-term viability of transit shipping in the region, making it unlikely for the Arctic to be a viable alternative for transit shipping in the near future. In fact, according to the Centre for High North Logistics and the Suez Canal Transit only 19 vessels and 214,513 tons of cargo transited the Northern Sea Route in 2016.

However, the paper mentions that significant progress has been made on Arctic governance, but there is still much to be done. The transit of Christophe de Margerie is an optimistic development, but such journeys must have thoughtful analysis on travel throughout the Arctic region, as maritime traffic will continue to increase as ice coverage decreases.

You can see more information on Arctic Institute's paper about Arctic shipping here