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Arctic Shipping Routes

With less sea ice, Arctic shipping routes will be more accessible, accelerating economic and political impacts on the region.

With a decrease in Arctic sea ice thickness and coverage,, the potential of trans-Arctic navigation (e.g. Northern Sea Route, NSR) is expected to increase. Theoretically, the NSR provides roughly a 30 to 40% advantage in distance in the Europe-Asia-lane, compared to the Suez Canal route that is currently attracting the majority of commercial shipping. For the majority of the year, however, the advantage in distance is negated by the harsh conditions, including ice cover that limits the viability of the route. Outside the sailing season, which tends to last for a few months per year, the route is operable only with ice breaker escorts, or with heavily ice-classed vessels. As a result, sailing speed is drastically reduced and energy consumption is increased due to additional power needs. These, together, reduce the (economic) viability of the route, especially considering transit traffic.

However, as the sea-ice cover is shrinking, and thickness and duration are decreasing, the potential of the route is likely to improve. Gradually, the sailing season is expected to become longer and the conditions less harsh to enable a larger share of the commercial fleet to utilise the route. Even as the route selection is a multi-faceted decision, considering various factors in addition to commercial viability (for example geopolitics and trade policy), the increased potential of the route is most likely going to attract additional cargo volumes to the NSR. This as such might have both positive and negative impacts, as a shorter route would most likely decrease the GHG emissions of shipping, but at the same time, for example, increased black carbon emission would have negative impacts for the sensitive arctic area.

In this part of the project, we make a long-term estimate on the potential increase of commercial shipping through the NSR. Considering the changing conditions, the capacity and structure of the commercial fleet as well as the icebreaking capacity, we estimate how the shipping volumes could increase as the shipping conditions improve.


The final storylines will be selected based on their impact on certain environmental risks, such as trans-Arctic shipping routes. In this section, you will find how one of our Arctic storylines impacts these shipping routes and what influence this has on an economic, political, and environmental standpoint. Using the storylines approach, we simulate the potential changes in capacity and shipping volumes with scenarios including slow, medium, and fast shrinking of the sea-ice cover and increase in the sailing season.